Members of local S6 of the Machinists Union from a picket line near at the South Gate entrance to BIW on June 22.  Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald  Buy this Photo

BATH — The largest union at Bath Iron Works has asked the Navy to confirm whether it supports the shipyard’s demand to continue subcontracting, a major sticking point that sparked the union’s ongoing strike — now in its fifth week with no signs of resolution.

In his July 17 letter to Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, Chris Wiers, president of Local S6, said BIW leadership said their call for subcontractors stemmed from pressure from the Navy, but the union wants to confirmation.

“Consistently throughout these negotiations, the company has made clear, both implicitly and explicitly, that their desire to increase their ability to outsource work is based heavily on the Navy’s strong endorsement of additional subcontracting at BIW,” Wiers wrote. “We strongly believe the changes in subcontracting language which the company is pushing for will be detrimental to the skilled workforce at BIW and the Navy’s shipbuilding mission.”

Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the company’s 6,700 employees, began its strike on June 22 after rejecting a three-year contract offer from the company.

In the proposed contract, the company requested the freedom to hire subcontractors without communicating with the union and move workers where they’re needed to “expedite our ability to employ whatever resources are available as quickly as possible to meet our customer’s needs in a way that is fair to our employees,” according to a company statement.

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

“We don’t think the Navy is pushing the subcontractors,” said Tim Suitter, Local S6 spokesman. “We’re looking to confirm that and create dialogue. If BIW is saying the Navy wants more subcontractors, we need to hear that from the Navy.”

Suitter said if the Navy confirms it’s recommending the shipyard use subcontractors, the union will continue to push back against the company’s request because “all we’re asking for is respect for the workforce. … We’re not going to let BIW move people around like pieces on a game board.”

Braithwaite couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

BIW declined to comment Monday. BIW Presdient Dirk Lesko said July 2 that the company is hiring additional subcontractors to compensate for the 4,300 machinists on strike and avoid further scheduling slips.

“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 said. “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.”

The company was at least six months behind schedule prior to the beginning of the strike, according to Lesko.

Regardless of the Navy’s response, Suitter said both parties need to resume negotiations so Local S6 members can return to work, train new employees and produce ships for the Navy.

“Right now is a critical time for us to be working and training the next generation so our industrial base is strong, and you don’t get that from subcontractors,” said Suitter.

The Bath shipyard has hired over 2,000 people since 2018 and plans to hire 1,000 more this year.

On Thursday, the union posted on social media an advertisement from Mississippi-based Craft and Technical Solutions, LLC, a company that pairs industrial and marine workers with employers. The advertisement calls for a variety of machinists including electricians, welders and shipfitters, to work on a 6-month project in Bath. The advertisement does not specifically identify BIW.

BIW declined to comment on the company’s involvement with CTS.

Communication between the company and the union remains stagnant, but both parties have met separately with a federal mediator. Union leadership said they’ll be meeting with the mediator again Tuesday morning in the hopes of moving towards resuming negotiations.

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