FORT WORTH — The future of American jet fighters is on the assembly line in Fort Worth.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is designed to be the backbone of the Air Force, Navy and Marines for decades to come.
Delays and cost overruns have already put Lockheed Martin under the gun to deliver — and the workers who deliver the planes are on the picket line.
"We're prepared to stay one day longer than the company can stand," says Paul Black, president of Local 776 of the International Association of Machinists.
Thirty-six hundred machinists struck at midnight Sunday. They say they are frustrated over insurance changes.
"Higher deductibles. Higher out-of-pocket maximums," Black said.
The union is also angry with Lockheed's proposal to end pensions for new hires.
"The company is trying to split our membership by offering new hires a pension that's less than what we enjoy today," Black said.
Defense experts say the F-35 program is so big, with so many delays and cost overruns, that there's a lot more on the line than labor grievances.
"I think that's a real danger for the Joint Strike Fighter program at this time," said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Any slips can have tremendous ripple effects throughout the program, and end up causing much greater schedule delays."
Lockheed spokesman Joe Stout said white collar workers are keeping production going, but at a slower rate. He said F-35 testing is actually ahead of schedule for the year, and can tolerate some delays.
But defense analysts say a prolonged strike would give more ammunition to critics who want to scale back F-35 orders — something that could ultimately cost jobs.
Lockheed offered 3 percent raises for three years and a $3,000 signing bonus. But machinists say givebacks — especially for future workers — will keep them off the job and on the picket line.
There are no talks scheduled between the two sides.