Sequester, Six Months In: Shutters Space Fence, Mothballs Nuclear Submarine


September 6, 2013

The Department of Defense has canceled repairs for a damaged nuclear submarine and ended a program that monitors orbiting space junk, two striking examples of consequences of a federal austerity program that could lay off dozens, potentially hundreds, of IBEW members.


These are the first layoffs affecting IBEW members resulting from drastic budget cuts that are slashing jobs across the country. Known as the sequester, more than $1 trillion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts started March 1 and will continue until 2023.

“This decision wasn’t made because it is right for national security or because we don’t have the money,” said Government Employees Department Director Chico McGill. “These are decisions that don’t save any money in the long-term and leave us more vulnerable now. It never should have been allowed to happen.”

When the Budget Control Act of 2011 was passed and signed into law creating the sequester, it was intended to be a self-imposed doomsday device so drastic that it would force budget compromises out of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the Democratic majority in the Senate.

“The whole design of these arbitrary cuts was to make them so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and say we can't do these bad cuts; let’s do something smarter," President Obama said.

Things did not go according to plan. Negotiators failed to come up with a budget and the sequester was implemented. Most of the nearly 65,000 IBEW members who work in the federal sector –including shipyard workers, Army Corps of Engineers civilian contractors and workers at the Government Printing Office – were exempt from 11 unpaid furloughs days in 2013. But, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told aircraft maintenance workers at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in July that furloughs would not be enough to cover the additional cuts and inevitably there will be layoffs.

With the cancelations of the space fence and the USS Miami, the first IBEW members are now feeling the bite.

“Politicians played Russian roulette, and then gave control of the trigger to the tea party,” said Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, N.H. “They gambled with our money, our safety and our jobs without really understanding how crazy these people are.”

The Space Fence Closes

The Air Force Space Surveillance System, commonly known as the space fence, is a major component of the national system to monitor space debris and satellite locations. The International Space Station and many private satellite owners use data from the tracking systems to prevent potentially catastrophic collisions.

The IBEW represents 56 workers at three high-frequency radar transmitting and six receiving stations across the southern United States. All of them will be laid off when the existing contract ends on Oct. 1. Air Force officials said they would save $14 million annually by shutting down the program.

In announcing the decision, Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, said that although the need for “space situational awareness” has grown immensely over the past decade, the sequester forced the closure.

A contract for a new $1.9 billion space debris monitoring system based in the Marshall Islands was awarded in 2009, but is on hold pending a Pentagon-wide program review ordered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel because of the sequester.

"This is not a good way to do it," Hagel said. "You don't save any money at the front end when you RIF (reduction in force) people. In fact it costs you more money. It's just a dumb way to do things. Sequestration is an irresponsible deferral of policymaking. But we are where we are."

Mothballing the USS Miami

The USS Miami is a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine commissioned in 1990 and based in Groton, Conn. In 2012, while in dry dock at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for scheduled maintenance and upgrades, the USS Miami was set ablaze by an arsonist, causing more than $400 million in damage. After a comprehensive assessment, however, the Navy determined that the submarine could and ought to be repaired because the replacement cost would exceed $2 billion.

However, Aug. 7, naval director of undersea warfare, Rear Admiral Richard Breckenridge announced that the Navy, “simply cannot afford” to repair it, citing the sequester.

Breckenridge said demand for attack submarines is, “nearly double the quantity that the Navy is able to provide,” making the decision to decommission USS Miami “a difficult one, taken after hard analysis and not made lightly.”

More than 500 members of Groton, Local 261 work at the Electric Boat shipyard that was going to make the repairs. No layoffs have been announced yet.

The sequester is threatening thousands of IBEW members at Electric Boat, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the Huntington-Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.

“Congress is making our men and women pay the price for their failures,” said O’Connor, who is a member of Portsmouth Local 2071. “How many small businesses will close? How many kids won’t be able to go to college or mortgage payments will be missed? How many families will be destroyed because of a policy that wastes money and makes our country more vulnerable? It is shameful.”