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California Base Workers Decry Budget Ax

Workers in Long Beach vow `to fight to the last breath' to keep their naval shipyard off Pentagon's shutdown list

IN Navy cap, jacket, and jeans, Leroy Chipley gestures over his shoulder to the gigantic USS Ogden, LPD5, amphibious transport ship resting in dry dock for routine maintenance.

"The speed with which we handle a ship like this makes us the most productive base on the West Coast," says Mr. Chipley, who has worked for four years as a custodian at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. As proof of the base's productivity, he points to a recent federal "meritorious award" given to the shipyard for saving the Navy $60 million over the past five years.

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Seventy percent of the Navy's West Coast fleet, based in nearby San Diego, comes here for routine maintenance. Without this shipyard, the newest of eight in the United States, many of the larger ships would have to travel 2,600 miles south to Pearl Harbor or 1,500 miles north to Bremerton, Wash.

"It'll cost the Navy more money if they close it," Chipley contends. "That's why we're going to see that they don't."

It is a scene being played out in as many as nine different locations across California and perhaps 21 more sites across the nation. Military personnel, civilian employees, and base administrators are joining with local community leaders, state lawmakers, and congressional delegations in a desperate attempt to remove their facility from the list of those being considered for closing.

The preliminary list of base closings was leaked to the press this week and will be officially announced today by Defense Secretary Les Aspin. Secretary Aspin's recommendations to the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission will lead to public hearings and recommendations to federal lawmakers. Congress will make a final decision by September.

But even before the official list became public, the public relations and lobbying battles were already getting into full swing. They are especially heated here in California, which has seen seven bases close in the last two years and which may take a large share of the latest shutdowns. Many jobs would be lost

Cutbacks in the aerospace industry have already cost the state 500,000 jobs since 1988 and, according to Gov. Pete Wilson (R), the latest round of base closings could cost another 80,000 to 100,000 jobs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California offers her own figures on the costs of base-closings: 77,000 military and civilian jobs directly affected, 230,000 more hit indirectly. But either way, it is a loss that California can ill sustain. The state's unemployment rate of 9.8 percent is the nation's highes t, nearly three points over the national average.

In dollar amounts, the state could lose $2.5 billion to $3 billion in annual payroll and another $1.4 billion in defense contracts, Governor Wilson says.

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Besides the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, other California bases expected to appear on the Pentagon's base-closing list include:

* Oakland Navy Supply Center, with 1,700 military personnel and 3,600 civilians.

* Treasure Island Naval Station near San Francisco, with 2,400 military, 800 civilians.

* Alameda Naval Air Station, located near Oakland, with 11,000 military, 5,500 civilians.

* The Presidio in Monterey, with 3,600 military, 1,200 civilians.

* March Air Force Base (AFB) near Riverside, with 3,500 military, 1,400 civilians.

* McClellan AFB near Sacramento, with 3,400 military, 12,900 civilians.

* El Toro Marine Air Station near Irvine, with 6,400 military, 900 civilians.

* Mare Island Naval Shipyard in the San Francisco Bay area, with 4,300 military, 10,100 civilian.

Like others affected by the base closings, the people who live and work around the Long Beach Naval Shipyard are determined to resist the proposed shutdown.

"We intend to fight this to the last breath," says Louis Rodriguez, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 174.

"Is Bill Clinton going to create more jobs by cutting them [the bases]?" demands Jim Conchlin, a 12-year machinist at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. "We've fought this before," he says, recalling a communitywide effort that helped save the base in 1991. "We'll take it to court if we have to."

To save the Long Beach yard, its supporters will have to demonstrate to Washington policymakers the relative benefits of keeping their base open while closing others. And they will have to show what kind of economic impact the closing will have on the surrounding community. Long Beach fights back

Although the Long Beach facility is one of the smallest targeted for shutdown in California, three other installations in southern California, which has already been hard hit by defense industry cutbacks, are also slated for closure. Together, those bases contribute more than $900 million to the regional economy annually and employ about 25,000 people, according to estimates from base officials.

"We estimate a multiplier effect of 10 more losses to the community for each job lost here [at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard]," says Archie Barkdale, vice president of the Federal Employee Metal Trades Council local chapter. Mr. Barkdale contends that the shutdown will hit women and minorities, who make up 60 percent of the employees at the Long Beach yard, especially hard.

To get that message to Washington, residents of Long Beach are adopting a game plan used by many other cities. The City Council passed a resolution calling for the Pentagon to keep the shipyard open. Local residents are writing letters to Aspin stressing the shipyard's productivity record and financial performance compared to the public alternatives.

Rep. Stephen Horn (R), whose district includes the Long Beach yard, says the case for keeping the facility "is a strong one. I remain convinced that, if the decision is made on the merits, it will not [remain] on the list."

But Ed Martin, an employee who has held a variety of jobs at the yard since being hired as a welder in 1976, is not so sure.

"The only thing we can do is demonstrate how hard we have worked at becoming lean and mean," he says, noting that civilian staffing has been cut from 7,600 to 4,100 in recent years.

His greatest concern? "That because of political wrongheadedness or careless maneuvering the Navy could destroy something that provides a cheaper alternative than anything else available."

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