Several hundred disgruntled Bath Iron Works employees marched outside the shipyard Thursday to protest cost-cutting measures the company wants to implement.

The protesters, who chanted “Go Home Fred!” in a reference to BIW President Fred Harris, marched down Washington Street, which runs parallel to the shipyard and the Kennebec River. The lunchtime rally ended at the union hall of Local S6 of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, which represents about 3,400 of the company’s more than 5,700 employees.

The union members were protesting the company’s proposal to reduce costs by outsourcing the manufacturing of some items and asking workers to be more flexible about doing tasks not currently assigned to their trade. The company, which is owned by General Dynamics, says these changes are necessary to allow it to compete for future work, including a major Coast Guard contract that will go out to bid next year. The dispute has landed in court and before an arbitrator, where decisions are expected in the next several weeks.

The shipyard has built U.S. warships for decades, but that work is expected to dwindle as the Navy downsizes its fleet. BIW wants to bid next year on a contract potentially worth $10 billion to build 11 offshore patrol cutters for the Coast Guard. If the shipyard can’t reduce its costs, the company said it won’t be able to compete against two other non-unionized shipyards in the South. BIW management has maintained that if the shipyard doesn’t get the Coast Guard contract in 2016, it would have to cut at least 1,000 jobs in the coming years.

The company released a statement Thursday morning in anticipation of the union rally that reiterated several of those points.

“BIW respects the right to demonstrate, but the simple fact of the matter is such a demonstration won’t bring down costs or make BIW more competitive in order to win Navy and Coast Guard contracts and continue building ships in midcoast Maine,” the statement read. “That will be done by making common-sense changes that eliminate production bottlenecks and reduce wait times – potentially saving thousands of hours each year. That is where we must all focus our efforts.”

Estimates for the number of protesters ranged from 600 to more than twice that number. Jay Wadleigh, president of Local S6, estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 people participated in the event.

Dan Ouellette, a pipefitter who has worked at BIW for 25 years, marched down the street wearing his hardhat and carrying a sign that said “Proud to be Union.”

“We’re just looking to save our jobs,” Ouellette said. “We don’t want to change everything. We’re trying to make it more efficient down here, but it takes everyone working together, not people working against us. We’re a unit, we’re in solidarity to fight for our jobs.”

MINOR CHANGES, OR WORKER THREAT?

The dispute between BIW management and the unions began last fall, when Harris began the formal process to outsource fabrication of some ship components, such as electrical panels, lockers and tables, that are currently made at the yard by union employees. Then in January, the company said it wanted to change the rules to allow workers to do tasks outside of what they’re currently permitted to do.

The union opposes both proposals. On April 2, the company informed the union that it planned to go ahead with its changes over the union’s opposition, and demanded arbitration. In response, the union filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to derail the arbitration, which is scheduled to begin May 29.

“We don’t feel the company had a right to implement that. They tried to move it to arbitration, which is unheard of,” Wadleigh said. “We haven’t filed a grievance on it and they’re trying to move it to arbitration, so we don’t feel it’s (an issue for arbitration).”

The union’s greatest concern has to do with the company’s desire to add tasks that each class of worker can perform under the existing contract, which expires in May 2016. The company has proposed a list of 108 additional tasks it wants workers to take on, according to Wadleigh.

The union claims the company is trying to implement “cross-training,” a term loaded with significance for those BIW workers who were around for the last big strike at the shipyard in 2000.

But the company rejects the allegation. It claims they are “common-sense changes” that will improve efficiency.

For example, a welder at the shipyard currently is not allowed to plug in his own welding machine or clean up any “splatter” more than 2 inches from his weld. In each case, the welder has to wait for someone else with a different trade classification to do those tasks, the company’s statement says.

“BIW is not looking for wholesale cross-training of trades. The goal is to reduce the numerous hand-offs between employees and the wait time that occurs in the shipyard in connection with even the most basic tasks,” the statement says. “The company wants these skilled tradesmen and women to perform minor tasks they are trained to do in order to finish their primary job, potentially driving tens of thousands of hours out of our production time annually.”

James Hunter, a pipefitter who has worked at BIW for five years, said the proposed changes would be much more significant than the company claims. He, for instance, would be asked to do everything from replacing insulation to painting pipes under the company’s proposals.

“I’m a pipefitter. It took me years to become one and I’m pretty damn good at it,” Hunter said. “I don’t want to do something I’m not trained to do. I don’t want to take someone else’s job. I don’t want to do brain surgery and I don’t want a doctor fitting pipes.”

Wadleigh understands that the company’s examples may seem straightforward to anyone outside the shipyard, but he echoes Hunter’s concerns.

“They’re not minor adjustments,” Wadleigh said. “It’s actually more encompassing than what we had from ’94 to 2000, which was disastrous and what we ended up striking over. People lose their sense of craftsmanship, and without any regulations or guidelines put on it, there’s the ability for the company to abuse it.”

‘UNILATERAL DECISION’ UPSETS UNION

Abusing it is exactly what happened during the late 1990s, he said.

“You had electricians grinding paint the entire day, eight hours a day, for multiple days,” Wadleigh said. “Although (the company’s) intent may sound good, the implementation is very different than what they’re saying, at least it was.”

He said the union is open to discussing cost-cutting measures, including some of the additional tasks, but only if it’s done in the course of a negotiation, not a unilateral decision by the company. He also said there are other ways for the company to cut costs.

“The company has failed to address several things. Their supervisor-to-worker ratio is very high,” Wadleigh said. “So they want to point the finger at us, but they haven’t taken care of all their internal issues yet.”

Thursday’s rally shows that the workforce is together on this, Wadleigh said.

“The membership is solid. We are one. The company is not going to be able to dictate to us,” he said. “We’re very willing to negotiate. We want to get these ship costs down as much as they do, but it will have to be through a negotiating process, not them telling us what they think will work and then forcing it on us.”