Several members of Local S6, Bath Iron Works’ largest union, celebrated outside the union hall after the union announced it will strike for the first time in 20 years. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

BATH — Bath Iron Works’ largest union is going on strike for the first time in 20 years.

Members of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the company’s 6,700 employees, approved the strike and rejected a controversial three-year contract proposal in voting over the weekend.

Of union members who cast ballots, an overwhelming 87% voted to strike, according to the Local S6 Facebook page. Voting, held online and over phones over throughout the weekend, wrapped up at noon Sunday. Exact numbers on how many union members voted to reject the proposed contract weren’t immediately available.

About a dozen union members burst from the union hall when the results were announced early Sunday afternoon, cheering and waving signs that read “Local S6 on strike.”

“It was the only logical way to vote,” said Ryan Ryder, a pipefitter for the past nine years. “From front to back, the contract attacked the union’s seniority, and the subcontracting needs to stop.”

Ryder said he’s willing to strike for “as long as it takes for us to receive a fair contract for the men and women who make great ships for the Navy.”

The 2000 Local S6 strike lasted 55 days.

In a statement issued after results were announced, BIW officials said they were “disappointed by this result, but are prepared should a strike occur.”

David Hench, BIW spokesman, declined to comment further on Sunday.

“We are proud of our members for standing up for good jobs for the Maine economy…” Chris Weirs, Local S6 president, said in a written statement Sunday evening. “We are proud to build the best ships in the world and we want to keep it that way. We are fighting for good jobs for the Maine economy. We want jobs at the shipyard to be high quality jobs that members can earn a decent living in over a long career.”

Michael Stacy, a maintenance mechanic of 22 years, said he voted to strike and reject the contract proposal because he didn’t approve of the company’s plan to continue hiring subcontractors. He said he voted with his son in mind, who also works at the shipyard. His son is the fifth generation of BIW workers in his family.

“This contract was worse than the last,” he said. “There’s no future there, and I want a future and a steady job for my son.”

BIW, a subsidiary of global aerospace and defense company General Dynamics, pitched a three-year contract including annual 3% pay increases, maintaining current premiums on benefits including 401k and life insurance, but increasing health plan co-pays.

The union repeatedly threatened to strike over disputes about seniority privileges and whether the company should hire subcontractors, a demand BIW made during negotiations for its existing contract five years ago. The union yielded to that request because it could allow the shipyard to remain flexible while competing for shipbuilding contracts.

In 2015, BIW 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. BIW ultimately lost the cutter contract.

In the week after BIW presented its offer for a new contract, negotiations hit an impasse. Prior to the polls opening over the weekend, both union and company leaders said they were willing to continue contract negotiations, but neither party approached the other to make that happen. Both sides issued statments saying they’d be willing to continue contract talks to stave off a strike, but that apparently didn’t happen.

Attempts to contact Local S6 officials on Sunday were unsuccessful.

Cynthia Phinney, president of Maine AFL-CIO, a state federation of labor unions, said Sunday that Local S6’s overwhelming vote to strike “should send a crystal clear message to BIW management: Respect your workers, go back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract.”

“The union has struggled and bargained over decades to make these safe, quality jobs that Maine workers can survive in over a long career and earn a decent living,” Phinney said. “BIW proposals roll back job quality, worker protections and safety. … All over this state and country the essential people are rising up to demand respect, justice and a fair share of the wealth we create. The broader labor movement stands with the workers at BIW in their struggle for a fair contract.”

In the days leading up to the vote, Navy analysts told The Times Record a strike would send a message to BIW executives, but also would slow already lagging production at the shipyard, potentially hurting its employees in the long run. The company is already at least six months behind schedule.

“If a strike builds morale and unity in the workforce, that’s good, but it’ll put BIW in a tough position,” said Craig Hooper, a national security consultant who writes about Naval affairs for several publications. “You can win a battle, but lose the war.”

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said a strike could erode BIW’s relationship with its Navy customer.

“When a shipyard is already running months late on work and a union goes on strike, it implies that there’s no great sense of urgency on the workers’ part to meet the customer’s demands,” he said. “If there’s a problem with the workflow, that’s going to be held against the company.”

The union expected to start its strike at 12:01 a.m. Monday, when the existing contract expires.

Local S6 night-shift workers are expected to walk out of the shipyard at midnight, before their shifts end, according to the union’s Facebook page. Union members expect a larger picket line to gather on Monday around 7 a.m., when the first shift typically would clock in for work.

“We will stand together until we get the respect and the fair contract that we deserve,” Weirs said. 

 

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.