NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Dave Sunderland said he had been wearing Donald Trump hats to work at Newport News Shipbuilding every day for nearly four years.
He wore them — most recently one that said “Trump 2020” — from his car to his work site inside the gates, he said, and sometimes for a short safety meeting at the start of his shift.
Sunderland, 55, was fired last week after refusing to remove his hat before the safety meeting. He said the human resources department told him he violated a policy barring yard workers from “campaigning” while on the job.
“I wasn’t campaigning,” Sunderland said. “I wore a ball cap. I wasn’t passing out bumper stickers. I wasn’t asking people to vote. I wasn’t doing anything, except for wearing a ball cap going to work.”
Newport News Shipbuilding spokesman Duane Bourne said that employees are strongly encouraged to participate in the political process on their own time.
“However, as we have previously communicated to our employees, we do not allow political campaign or partisan political activities on company property, such as wearing attire with messages that include a campaign slogan,” Bourne wrote in an email.
“Additionally, political messages, debates and commentaries on candidates and related issues should not take place on company time and interfere with normal business operations.”
The policy, Bourne wrote, has been in place since 2005 and is shared with employees at orientation and training. “We investigate all reported violations of our company policies, and take definitive action based on the results of such investigations,” he wrote.
Huntington Ingalls sent out a memo to all workers Tuesday evening titled “Employee Political Activity at Work.”
The message told workers that the company views political activities “are important rights and responsibilities of the citizens of a democracy.” But it said workers must refrain from using company time and resources on any partisan activity — including campaigning, collecting contributions, or “distributing or posting any printed or written materials, signs, stickers and banners.”
Sunderland began working at the shipyard in May 2012, shortly after moving here from Ohio. At the time, he said, he noticed lots of yard workers wearing T-shirts supporting President Barack Obama, who was then up for reelection.
In 2016, he said, he saw workers wearing T-shirts in support of Hillary Clinton, such as the “I’m with her” shirts, among others. “There’s Black Lives Matter masks that people are wearing, and nobody’s saying anything about that,” Sunderland said.
Though he hasn’t seen any workers wearing Joe Biden gear, he said, “it’s getting close to the election, and I’ll bet they’ll be there.”
“I don’t have a problem with anything anybody wears,” Sunderland said. “That’s their First Amendment right to express themselves, you know, freedom of expression. That’s their right. But when I wore something, they came down on me … They take away my freedom of expression, but they don’t for other folks.”
When a reporter noted that the shipyard is a private employer and isn’t under government free speech restrictions, Sunderland pointed out that the shipyard’s work is exclusively building and maintaining ships for the Navy.
Newport News Shipbuilding, an arm of Huntington Ingalls Industries, employs about 25,000 workers. It’s the nation’s only maker of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and one of two makers of nuclear submarines.
Sunderland, who worked on the shipyard’s second shift, was a pipe-fitter in the shipyard’s nuclear testing section. He said he wore a variety of Donald Trump caps over the years — including a “Make America Great Again” hat, a “Keep America Great” hat and the “Trump 2020” one, among others.
“I never had a problem,” he said.
Sunderland said he would wear the hat from the parking lot to a small shack where his team gathered, then often for a safety meeting that typically lasted for about 15 minutes. Then he’d remove the hat and don a company hard hat to work the ships and docks, leaving the cap in the shack.
Sometimes workers with different opinions on Trump would strike up conversations with him during shift changes. “We’ve talked, and I know their feelings, and we’re still friendly,” Sunderland said. “That hat sat there for years, and nobody’s touched it.”
He said his direct supervisor never told him not to wear the caps — except for once telling him not to wear one that said “Make America a ‘S---hole.’ Vote Democrat.” He agreed to stop wearing that one, he said.
On Aug. 25, Sunderland was on his way to the safety meeting when a supervisor from a different department saw him with the “Trump 2020” hat — a black hat with red, white and blue lettering.
“He said, ‘You can’t wear that,’” Sunderland said. “And I said, ‘I’ve been wearing it for four years.’”
Sunderland kept the hat on, and the supervisor talked to a general foreman who walked over about 15 minutes later. She later wrote in a handwritten memo that she gave Sunderland a “direct order to remove his Trump 2020 hat.”
“He said no,” foreman Lakesha Starks wrote in the memo. “I explained to him that it was against company policy to wear political gear. He told me he was not going to take off the hat.”
Starks said she warned Sunderland several times that he would be fired if he didn’t remove it. “He said he understands and (that) he was not removing his hat,” she wrote.
“I told him that I was going to call security to come pick him up,” Starks wrote. A security guard soon escorted Sunderland out of the yard.
Sunderland was suspended for three days, but was called in to the yard’s human resources office on Friday. An official cited the policy on campaigning, he said, and fired him for “refusing to follow a supervisor’s instructions.”
A representative from the shipyard’s labor union, Local 8888 of the United Steelworkers of America, sat in on that meeting, but didn’t speak out on his behalf, Sunderland said.
Though he stopped paying union dues about a year ago, Virginia labor law requires unions to represent all members of a bargaining unit — even those who don’t pay dues. Local 8888 President Charles Spivey did not return phone calls this week.
Sunderland said he doesn’t regret his decision.
“This is the United States of America, and we have those rights, and I could find another job,” he said. “Why should they take away my rights? I’m patriotic. I love this country … It’s a damn good place to be.”
©2020 Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)