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Striking Lockheed Martin workers picket in Texas

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) -- Unhappy with proposed changes to health care benefits and pension plans, dozens of Lockheed Martin workers started picketing Monday at a North Texas plant where F-35 stealth fighter jets are made, as well as outside flight test centers in two other states.

The strike by Fort Worth-based Machinists Local 776 began after the 3,600 union members voted overwhelmingly Sunday to reject the aerospace company's latest contract offer. Union members oppose the company's proposed changes to the health care and pension plans — including higher deductibles and co-payments — and eliminating pension for newly hired workers, said union spokesman Bob Wood.

"With the higher deductibles, it's a higher cost for workers, and that can get expensive very quickly," Wood said. "We're really drawing a line in the sand."

The company said it believes the offer, which comes with wage increases of 3 percent each year, a $3,000 signing bonus and increased retirement income for current workers, is fair. There are no other meetings scheduled between the company and union.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Joe Stout said the Fort Worth plant remains open and no problems have been reported. Some employees have been assigned alternate job duties to take over for the striking workers, Stout said.

Still, last week Lockheed informed its customers — the military branches — about the possibility of a work stoppage as required by its federal contracts, Stout said.

Union members also were picketing Monday outside Edwards Air Force Base in California and Patuxtent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. Each flight test center has fewer than 150 union members.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 776 represents about a quarter of the 14,000 workers at the Lockheed Martin plant. Those on strike do most of the aircraft assembly and manufacturing work on the F-35 and F-16 fighter jets or service the machines and facilities.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a supersonic stealth jet and is the nation's most advanced and expensive weapons program. Concerns about its safety, cost overruns and questions about the entire program's feasibility have delayed pilot training and caused increased scrutiny by the Pentagon and Congress.

Built by Lockheed Martin under a 2001 contract, the F-35 is supposed to replace Cold War-era aircraft such as the Air Force's F-16 fighter and the Navy's and Marines' F/A-18 Hornet.

Costing between $65 million and $100 million each, depending on the version, the F-35 is described as a generational leap from older fighter jets. A single-seat aircraft, it can fly at speeds of about 1,050 mph.