Members of local S6 of the Machinists Union from a picket line near at the South Gate entrance to BIW. (Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald)

BATH — A striking union fired back at Bath Iron Works Tuesday, arguing that the shipyard’s recent decision to file a charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board was the latest in a series of efforts to “bust the union.”

Tim Suitter, Local S6 spokesman, said the charge amounts to an attempt to turn members against one another as the shipyard continues to stall negotiations for a contract that would end the strike, which has entered its fourth week with no sign of resolution.

“The men and women who work at BIW are good people and [the shipyard is] trying to pit people against one another so BIW can seem like they’re a third party,” said Suitter. “Instead of focusing on how they can get back to the negotiating table, they want to continue to keep people out of work. If that’s not union-busting, what is?”

Local S6 Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the company’s 6,700 employees, rejected a three-year contract proposal and voted to strike on June 22 over the shipyard’s plans to continue subcontracting and change seniority privileges.

Last Friday, company officials announced they filed a charge against the union because it threatened to fine members who return to work during the strike.

“Once we return to work, anyone who took the advice from management and resigned from the union will still be required to pay full union dues,” the union’s statement, issued last Thursday, reads. “The union will fine every single member who crossed the picket line for the total amount of wages they individually earned from BIW until the strike is over.”

“We are extremely disappointed that union leaders would make false and threatening statements to the very employees they are supposed to represent,” BIW President Dirk Lesko said Friday. “We take these issues very seriously and will continue to ensure our employees’ rights are protected.”

Suitter said the union issued the statement in response to “propaganda” BIW mailed to union members that included information on how to resign from the union.

“People want to go back to work, but they want to do that by having the company come back to the negotiating table, not by receiving literature about how to leave the union,” he said.

The union’s statement concluded with the phrase: “No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.” That’s an excerpt from a pro-union poem, “Ode to a Scab,” written by American novelist Jack London in 1915.

Shipyard officials argued that amounted to a threat of violence against anyone who breaks the picket line, but Suitter said the quote was not meant to threaten members and that the union doesn’t plan to take the quote off its website.

“We put that information out so our members can make their decision based on their needs and not the company’s,” said Suitter. “We certainly weren’t threatening anyone. It’s a famous quote and wasn’t meant to be a threat.”

Union officials told members that leaving the union to go back to work would mean losing union benefits, including health insurance, and the right to vote or run for a leadership position within the union.

According to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, if a member of a union on strike resigns before returning to work, they cannot be fined or otherwise disciplined by the union. However, the nonprofit cautions that anyone who resigns from their union “will lose any rights under the union’s constitution which are available only to members, such as voting in union elections and on ratification of the collective bargaining agreement.”

Suitter said union officials will not tolerate any members who harass other members who resign and return to work during the strike, but said those who cross the picket line could lose friends over their decision.

“BIW wants people to cross the picket line because they don’t care that those people will be miserable at work because they’ll be alienated by their friends and coworkers,” he said. “Nobody wants to be on strike, but people need to understand that crossing the line may create more problems for that person.”

Peter Bennett, a labor lawyer at the Portland-based Bennett Law Firm, said threatening to fine employees for crossing the picket line is something unions typically do “to keep their members in line during a strike.”

“Every union has a set of rules and when someone becomes a member of a union, they sign a document that’s a legally enforceable commitment,” said Bennett. “Under the union’s constitution, they have the right to file charges against a member.”

He said once a union member leaves their union, they can go to work without receiving a fine, but warned retribution could come when the strike ends.

“BIW should be careful when advising their employees,” Bennett cautioned. “In my career, I’ve seen strike-related violence. When strikes drag on like this, it gets more emotional.”

Union calls on Congress

On Tuesday the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents Local S6, called on members of Congress to pressure BIW into negotiating a fair contract with the union.

In his letter, IAM President Robert Martinez Jr. pointed to the shipyard’s demands to “expand its use of low-wage, out-of-state contractors, without any recourse for the union. … BIW is now seeking a blank check to subcontract additional work with no input from union workers.”

The previous contract between the union and the company allowed subcontracting after a joint review period by both parties.

“In these uncertain times, General Dynamics should be doing everything in their power to support this vital mission,” Martinez wrote Monday. “Instead, the company has presented these workers with a slap in the face; proposing to subcontract much of their work to out-of-state contractors and jeopardize our members’ safety, health and livelihoods.”

US Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree have both expressed support for Local S6 members on strike, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has urged BIW to negotiate a fair contract.

Last week, both union and shipyard officials met separately with a federal mediator and both parties said they plan to continue meeting separately with him this week.

“We are fully engaged with the mediator and look forward to achieving a workable solution that allows BIW to be competitive while respecting the needs of our valued workforce,” BIW spokesperson David Hench said Tuesday.

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 their differences.

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