As Bath Iron Works and its largest union enter contract negotiations, union representatives said they want increased wages for workers, but the shipyard stressed the importance of getting back on schedule. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record 

BATH — Bath Iron Works and its largest union entered contract negotiations for the first time in five years last week. While the shipyard’s primary concern is getting back on schedule amid a pandemic, the union is focused on negotiating annual wage increases for its members.

Chris Wiers, president of Machinists Union Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, told The Times Record in April that if the union isn’t able to negotiate an annual wage increase, it could open the door for a potential strike.

One week into negotiations, that sentiment hasn’t changed.

Tim Suitter, communications representative for Local S6, said Thursday that a strike is “always on the table” but the union sees it as “a last measure to get a fair contract.”

Suitter said the union is pushing for an annual wage increase, which it didn’t get in its previous contract. In 2015, Local S6 negotiated a $2,500 annual lump sum bonus in lieu of wage increases.

In 2015 BIW, a subsidiary of global aerospace and defense company General Dynamics was focused on winning a $10.5 billion contract to build Coast Guard cutters. The shipyard warned losing out on the contract could lead to the elimination of 1,000 jobs.

Suitter said the union accepted the bonuses in the 2015 contract because it “gave up a lot of flexibility to help BIW be more competitive.”

The shipyard continues to tout the importance of getting its manufacturing schedule back on track, both to appease the Navy and to improve the chances of winning future contracts.

“In order to win new work, we need to complete the work we have on time,” BIW President Dirk Lesko wrote in a May 27 letter to employees posted on the company’s website. “We are not doing that today, which opens the door for our Navy customer to award work to other shipyards.”

The company is still feeling the sting of losing a $5.58 billion contract to build up to 10 guided-missile frigates for the Navy. In April the Navy announced Italian shipbuilding company Fincantieri was chosen to build the ships.

In a May 27 letter to employees, Lesko wrote, “Our current shipyard schedule performance is the reason we lost [the frigate contract].”

“This is hard feedback to receive, but it reinforces the sense of urgency we need as we work to regain schedule on our current ships and toward a production rate of two ships per year,” he added. “Schedule performance will be a focus of the discussions throughout the negotiations process.”

Lesko told the Portland Press Herald the company is at least six months behind schedule. Production delays were a concern even before the coronavirus pandemic slowed work further, as many employees chose to stay home instead of risking exposure to the virus on the shipyard.

While contract negotiations have been a point of contention between BIW and the union, that relationship was further strained by the virus. Union representatives have repeatedly called the shipyard to close and give workers on paid leave to prevent the spread of coronavirus within the shipyard and throughout the state, but the shipyard has remained open.

Three BIW workers have tested positive for coronavirus as of Friday. The first two have recovered and returned to work. The third, announced, May 26, remains under quarantine.

Contract negotiations are expected to last until Friday, June 12. Voting on the new contract will open at noon on Friday, June 19 and close at noon on Sunday, June 21, when the existing contract expires.

Local S6 members will receive information on the new contract proposal in the mail, according to the union’s website. Due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions, members will vote online or via phone rather than meeting at the Augusta Civic Center, as they did 5 years ago. .

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