BATH — More than 100 members of Bath Iron Works’ largest union gathered Wednesday to express discontent with the shipyard’s contract proposals as the union weighs a potential strike.

Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, is in the midst of weeks-long contract negotiations for the first time in five years, but union members and officials aren’t pleased with the shipyard’s proposals.

The rally, held in front of the union hall on Washington Street, was organized to show solidarity as union officials negotiate for higher wages, among other demands.

Local S6 President Chris Wiers said he’s frustrated with the shipyard’s plans to continue working with subcontractors.

Local S6 union members gathered in front of the union hall on Washington Street in Bath early Wednesday morning to protest the shipyard’s proposed contract changes. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

During negotiations for its current contract back 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 lost out on the contract and warned that outcome could lead to the elimination of 1,000 jobs, but the shipyard recently embarked on a push to hire 1,000 workers to replace a raft of retiring employees.

“BIW had more versatility and flexibility (in the current contract), but they’ve gone backward and are behind schedule and now they want more, but (claim) it’s our fault,” said Wiers. “We’re not going to put up with it.”

BIW President Dirk 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 at work.

Wiers added that he and his union members are “absolutely” prepared to strike if BIW doesn’t change its contract proposals.

Richard Buzzell, a BIW ship fitter of 31 years, said he’s frustrated by BIW’s proposals to alter seniority within the union and continue subcontracting workers, which would “bring in cheaper workers from out-of-state.”

Members of Local S6, BIW’s largest union, gathered at the union hall across the street from the Bath shipyard Wednesday morning. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

“This contract is worse than the 2000 contract when we went on strike,” said Buzzell.

Tuesday, BIW officials said the company “is not trying to ‘bust’ (Local S6) or undermine its rightful role as the representative of our workforce.”

According to the statement, the company’s proposed changes are designed to “efficiently assign employees with the right skills where they are needed” and “attempt to solve for unpredictable attendance on overtime shifts and limited availability of a few critical skill areas that disrupt the flow of work in the shipyard.”

The company added its proposal includes “annual wage increases for most employees in each year of the contract, maintains three different health care options, continues the 401k plan and International Association of Machinists pension and expands life insurance options.”

However, a few dozen employees “who are already well above market rate” were offered lump sums instead of percentage wage increases, according to David Hench, the shipyard’s spokesman.

House Speaker Sara Gideon addresses the crowd of BIW workers Wednesday morning, flanked by the union’s contract negotiation committee. Gideon said she attended the rally to stand in solidarity with Local S6 union members. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

The starting hourly wage at BIW is $15.97, according to the current contract. Maine’s minimum hourly wage is $12.

Hench pointed to data on BIW’s website that indicates a machinist’s hourly wage will jump from $15.97 to $23.13 — a 16% increase — within 2 1/2 years at the shipyard.

Negotiations are scheduled to conclude Friday, giving employees time to review the new contract. Voting begins June 19 and closes June 21, the day the existing contract is set to expire.

“We want a fair contract,” Wiers said. “We do not want to be on strike, but we want what we feel we deserve.”

House Speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon attended the rally and addressed union members declaring she’s “standing in solidarity” with union members.

“Bath built is best built, not because of the company, but because of the workers, because of every one of you,” she said, echoing the shipyard’s motto. “The job you do, the standard you set for workers across this entire state, both for the quality of work you do, but also for the quality of wages and benefits you earn, it matters to every single Mainer in this state.”

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