BATH — Bath Iron Works and its largest union have begun negotiations aimed at getting a contract signed before the end of the year to help the shipyard make a strong bid to build Coast Guard cutters.

The Navy shipbuilder told Machinists Union Local S6 that it wants to settle on terms ahead of the May 22 expiration of the current contract, and talks began on Monday at an off-site location. The union has reserved the Augusta Civic Center for Sunday, Dec. 13, for a contract vote if an agreement can be reached before then.

The company contends it needs to nail down a contract that will help it become more efficient to make a competitive bid next year on Coast Guard offshore cutters. Bath Iron Works is one of three finalists asked to submit detailed bids in the coming year. The other two are nonunion yards.

The shipyard’s 6,000 workers have been warned that there will be steep cuts if the yard fails to land the contract, which calls for construction of 25 cutters over two decades.

Writing in the Portland Press Herald, two former shipyard presidents, Bill Haggett and Dugan Shipway, encouraged the parties to come together to secure the yard’s future “for generations to come.”

“Success means stable employment and jobs for a new generation of shipbuilders and millions of dollars circulating through Maine’s economy,” they wrote in Friday’s edition. “Failure means loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs and another painful setback for manufacturing in our state.”

Jay Wadley, president of Local S6, declined to comment Friday on negotiations. Shipyard and union negotiators will return to the bargaining table on Monday.

Both the union and the company have been told by top Navy officials that future contracts depend on the shipyard’s ability to drive down costs.

At the Oct. 31 christening of the future USS Peralta, BIW President Fred Harris talked about the shipyard’s need to reduce costs. “We have no other option,” he said. “We must change.”

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