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The picketing continued into a third week and the jets kept flying at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, amid an ongoing dispute over a contract between the manufacturer of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and union employees.

A union representative and chief steward said Tuesday outside the base’s Gate 3 that health coverage, not pay, is the predominant impediment to approval of the three-year contract from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, which last month offered its “2012 Last, Best and Final Offer.”

About 170 members of Machinists Union Local 776 take part at Pax River in testing and maintenance of the Navy and Marine versions of the F-35, and most of them have stood with the strike that commenced when a deadline came and went at midnight on April 22 at the company’s manufacturing site in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We had about 10 that went in [to work] right off the bat,” Joe Alviar, a business representative with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said on Tuesday, and as of this week, between 35 and 50 of the union members “have crossed the picket line.” But the rest are holding out, including about a dozen who were carrying signs on Tuesday afternoon as Alviar and Gilbert Torres, the chief steward employed as a mechanic, discussed the impact of contract dispute and the work stoppage.

“It’s really tight,” Torres said of getting by on his military disability payments, but “we’ll stay out as long as it takes. I’ll be the last one back.”

“We’re standing firm,” Alviar said.

Torres said testing on the Joint Strike Fighter is still ahead of schedule, and spokesmen for both the company and Naval Air Systems Command said Wednesday that the work continues unabated.

“Everything is as it was,” Mike Rein of Lockheed Martin said. “We’ve been flying jets every workday. It’s business as we would normally do it when it comes to flight testing.”

Joe Stout, also a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said Wednesday that the company has 325 non-union salaried employees working at Pax River.

Victor Chen, NASC’s public affairs officer, said, “We continue to fly test flights, and continue on our plan.”

Alviar, who had been attending the contract negotiations in Fort Worth, said he arrived at Pax River on April 19 to do a site visit, but that unlike union representatives who had been on base before him, he was not allowed entry to visit the membership.

“The [main] problem is health insurance,” Alviar said of the proposed three-year contract, adding that its pay increase of $11,500 over that period could be more than offset by additional out-of-pocket medical expenses during that same timeframe of as much as $20,500.

“That could devestate a lot of folks that came out here,” he said.

Two other key issues, Alviar said, are the proposed contract’s putting all new employees on a 401(k) retirement plan instead of the pension that awaits the current workforce, and the union’s effort to prevent outside contractors from getting jobs held by company employees.

Torres said he has been with the company 10 years, arriving at Pax River from Egypt about 15 months ago. He said he has two herniated disks in his back, pays child support for two children, and understands the plight of strikers who have family members with costly medical conditions.

Alviar said one union member had to go back to work after his wife broke a tooth and needed surgery.

The strike by Lockheed Martin’s union workers at Pax River, Fort Worth and Edwards Air Force Base in California has affected the company’s building, sales and shipment of older-design aircraft to bases in the United States and overseas, according to Alviar and Torres, but it has not jeopardized the nation’s security.

“The folks here are patriots,” Alviar said, and if there was an emergency, “they would go across the line, because they love this country.”

“It’s not against the country. It’s not against the military. This is business,” Torres said of the dispute with his employer. He said most of his coworkers also are veterans, and “when we go back to work, we need to pick up where we left off. We’re here to make planes fly.”

Chen said the Navy’s “stand is neutral” on the standoff between Lockheed Martin and its union employees.

“I hope that they come to a mutually beneficial solution,” Chen said. “We’ll continue to press forward as best we can.”

jwharton@somdnews.com