Hundreds of striking Local S6 union members, led by union leaders, marched down Washington Street in Bath to call for a fair contract. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

BATH — The largest union at Bath Iron Works, now entering its sixth week on strike, held a rally Saturday morning calling for a fair contract after negotiations stalled over a month ago.

Union leaders and Maine lawmakers spoke to the hundreds of union members, reiterating the union’s forceful rejection of the shipyard’s proposed 3-year contract. The crowd then marched down Washington Street, strike signs held aloft, to the South Gate of the shipyard where they chanted for “scabs” — subcontractors who work during the strike or union members who cross the picket line — to leave.

“The dedicated men and women of Local S6 have fought and will continue to fight for the thousands of Local S6 members to ensure job security and a healthy economic future,” said Local S6 President Chris Wiers. “We are the backbone of BIW and we will not be broken.”

Machinist Union Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, went on strike June 22 after rejecting the 3-year contract proposal over disagreements about the company’s plans to continue hiring subcontractors and proposed changes to worker seniority privileges.

Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, criticized BIW for not meeting with Local S6 to restart negotiations and encouraged union members to keep “standing up for your future to ensure we have a strong collective bargaining agreement.”

“This is the largest strike in the United States of America right now,” said Martinez. “The eyes of the nation are upon you all.”

Collins, Gideon met with workers

“The executives you’ve been negotiating with seem to see this strike as a problem, but it’s not,” said Maine Sen. Eloise Vitelli. “A strike is not a problem, it’s a symptom. A strike isn’t something you want, it’s a fight you accept as a necessity to protect your livelihood. You are more than worthy of fairness and respect.”

Maine House Speaker and US Senate candidate Sara Gideon, a frequent visitor at the picket line, told the crowd she has supported the union “for every one of the 34 days of this strike, and we will continue to do so until you are able to go back to work with the contract and benefits that you deserve.”

“When you go on strike, making sure that a fair contract and good jobs and strong benefits are available, you’re not doing it for you, you’re doing it looking backwards at the young men and women who have just started at Bath Iron Works and want to make a career here,” she said.

Local S6 President Chris Wiers speaks to hundreds of union members during a rally Saturday. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Gideon’s opponent, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, visited striking workers Friday.

Collins said she’s eager for the strike to be resolved so Local S6 members can return to work.

“I encouraged both sides to seek the help of a mediator, and my hope is that the mediator can bring both sides together and that the mediator will help them come up with solutions,” said Collins. “Once we’re back on track and these incredibly skilled workers are back building the best ships in the world, I can help them as I’ve always helped them, and that’s by ensuring that BIW gets contracts, that we have an adequate shipbuilding budget, and we continue to pursue the goal of a 355-ship Navy.”

On Saturday, Martinez said he wants Collins to pressure BIW to negotiate a fair contract with union leaders.

“Sen. Collins says she is not going to get involved in this strike,” said Martinez. “Any politician who can’t support us now, don’t come looking for our support in November.”

Local S6 and the three other unions at the shipyard endorsed Collins during her last election in 2014, the first time the union ever threw its weight behind a Republican.

The strike marches on

The fifth week of the strike saw little change. The union invited the shipyard to meet together with the federal mediator. The two parties have been meeting separately with the mediator over the past several weeks, but those meetings haven’t yielded a resolution.

Local S6 President Chris Wiers said Friday that BIW hadn’t yet responded to the union’s invitation. BIW spokesman David Hench said Friday the company is “fully engaged” in the federal mediation process.

“When that process calls for the parties to return to the bargaining table and resume negotiations, we are prepared to do so,” said Hench.

Local S6 union members, who are entering their sixth week on strike, rallied in front on the union hall on Saturday to reignite their calls for a fair contract. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Wiers also wrote a letter to Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, asking him to confirm whether the Navy supports the shipyard’s demand to continue subcontracting.

“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.”

Efforts to get a comment from Braithwaite were unsuccessful.

The shipyard has brought in subcontractors in the past few weeks to compensate for the 4,300 union members on strike, but that has elevated tensions.

In the proposed contract, the company requested the freedom to hire subcontractors without communicating with the union, as well as to 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.

As the strike stretches into its sixth week, many Local S6 members told The Times Record they’ve found temporary jobs to make ends meet in the event the strike drags on for weeks or months more.

Eliot Scott started his job as a BIW electrician just over a year ago after leaving his 12-year career as an EMT to get benefits, such as health insurance. One month into a strike that could drag on for months more, and he’s considering a reversal of course.

“I’m about to see if I can get my job back as an EMT to make ends meet,” said Scott. “I’ve always wanted to work at BIW, and I finally got the opportunity, but one year later, we’re on strike. I don’t want to be on strike, I want to work, but I’m not going to cross the picket line.”

The union gives members a $150 weekly stipend during the strike, if they picket for four hours. The starting hourly wage at BIW is $15.97.

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