Picketers acknowledge a honking motorist outside an entrance to Bath Iron Works, June 22. Production workers at one of the Navy’s largest shipbuilders overwhelmingly voted to strike, rejecting the company’s three-year contract offer and threatening to further delay delivery of ships. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

BATH — As the largest union at Bath Iron Works, one of the state’s largest employers, launches its third week on strike, union officials met with a federal mediator Monday in the hopes of restarting negotiations soon.

Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, began striking June 22 after rejecting the three-year contract proposal over disagreements about the company’s plans to continue hiring subcontractors and proposed changes to worker seniority privileges.

Local S6 spokesman Tim Suitter said the union’s negotiating committee discussed the union’s demands with the mediator, but negotiations will remain stagnant until the shipyard’s representatives meet with the mediator.

“It was a good conversation, but we won’t know how fruitful it was until [the mediator] is able to meet with the company,” Suitter said. “Until then, it’s a one-sided conversation. We’ll continue to stand together until the company decides to come back to the table.”

Suitter said the shipyard will meet with the mediator sometime this week, but BIW spokesman David Hench declined to comment Monday on if or when the company plans to meet with a mediator.

A federal mediator can be called upon when an agency and union have reached an impasse in a dispute. The parties can seek mediation help from a third party in an attempt to informally resolve the matter.

Officials from BIW and Local S6 have said they’re ready and willing to speak, but neither party has made the first move to resume negotiations.

“BIW is more interested in [continuing to subcontract] than getting back to the table and taking care of their employees,” said Suitter. “It’s unfortunate because they have a lot of skilled shipbuilders waiting to get back to work.”

The union’s meeting with the mediator comes on the heels of BIW announcing plans to hire more temporary subcontractors to compensate for 4,300 machinists on strike outside the shipyard’s gates, which isn’t helping the company’s already delayed schedule. BIW President Dirk Lesko told the Portland Press Herald in May the shipyard is at least six months behind schedule.

“Even before the strike, the impact of attrition and COVID-19 had driven our manufacturing staffing more than 500 people below what was needed,” Lesko wrote in a letter to employees last Thursday. “We have sought more efficient access to subcontractors through these negotiations because the focused and timely introduction of skilled people on a temporary basis can help break bottlenecks to the flow of production through the yard. Bringing others in can also free our workforce to focus on the most important tasks.”

Lesko wrote the use of subcontractors is the company’s right and that it will use the temporary workers to prevent further production delays. Subcontracting remains a major point of contention between the BIW and Local S6.

“In our offer for a new contract, we committed that the changes regarding subcontracting would not be used to avoid hiring employees, and we further restricted ourselves by not allowing subcontracting in trades where people are on involuntary layoff,” Lesko wrote. “We are not putting Bath jobs at risk; we are trying to secure them and the future of our shipyard by ensuring we can get all available hands on deck to send Bath-built ships down the river.”

However, union leaders have noted the freedom to hire subcontractors hasn’t yielded results in the form of contracts from the Navy, as the company promised during its last contract negotiations five years ago.

In 2015 BIW argued subcontracting would allow the shipyard to remain flexible while vying to win a $10.5 billion contract to build Coast Guard cutters. The shipyard warned that losing out on the contract could lead to the elimination of 1,000 jobs. BIW ultimately lost the cutter contract.

“We are outraged that this company would further expand its use of low-wage subcontracting,” Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, wrote. “It’s a slap in the face to more than 4,300 IAM Local S6 shipbuilders who have worked through a pandemic and for generations to make this company successful.”

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