Virginia shipyard worker cries foul after he’s reportedly fired for not removing pro-Trump hat

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An employee at a shipyard in Virginia claims he was let go by his employer for wearing a “Trump 2020” hat though he had worn similar-looking caps for years without any flak from management.

Dave Sunderland, who had been employed for about eight years at Newport News Shipbuilding, a leading naval warship manufacturer, says he was fired after he refused to take off his hat at a safety meeting ahead of working a shift.

Newport News, which is a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the only builder of aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy and is one of two companies that manufacture nuclear-powered submarines.

Though the company has a policy that prohibits campaigning and the wearing of politically-related clothing, Sunderland said in an interview with the Daily Press newspaper he had been wearing pro-Trump hats over the past few years without any problems. Also, he said he has seen others wearing items promoting Democrats and Left-wing political slogans.

Most often, Sunderland, 55, said he wore his pro-Trump caps between his car and his worksite, and at times during safety briefs. But while on the job, he wore a hardhat like the other workers.

Last week, he told the paper, he refused to take his cap off during a safety brief though he was warned repeatedly against “campaigning” while at work.

“I wasn’t campaigning,” Sunderland said in an interview. “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.”

The shipbuilder said that his direct foreman did not have an issue with the cap but that it was flagged by a supervisor from a different department who was critical of it.

The foreman instructed Sunderland to remove his cap, but he refused. After she informed him that repeated refusals would likely cost him his job, he still donned the cap. Eventually, he was escorted off the job site by security and suspended, only to be fired a short time later.

The company issued a statement noting that the rule was in place to “eliminate anything” that would hamper on-the-job cohesion in a very complex work environment where highly complicated warships are built.

“[A]s 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,” Newport News Shipbuilding spokesman Duane Bourne told the paper in an emailed statement.

“Additionally, political messages, debates and commentaries on candidates and related issues should not take place on company time and interfere with normal business operations,” Bourne added.

The company issued a memo to employees Tuesday reminding them of the policy, which as reportedly been in place since 2005.

The memo warned employees against campaigning, collecting contributions, or “distributing or posting any printed or written materials, signs, stickers and banners.”

Sunderland began working at the shipyard after moving to Virginia from Ohio in 2012. At the time, he said a lot of workers were wearing t-shirts supporting President Barack Obama’s reelection.

And in 2016, he said, workers wore t-shirts saying “I’m With Her,” which was a message supportive of then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, among others.

“There’s Black Lives Matter masks that people are wearing, and nobody’s saying anything about that,” Sunderland said.

“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.”

Sunderland, a pipe fitter in the nuclear section who worked the second shift, added that over the years he’s worn a variety of pro-Trump messaging.

“I never had a problem,” he added.

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Jon Dougherty

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