WISCASSET — Since the mid-1980s, Bath Iron Works Corp. has been struggling with a severe morale problem throughout its entire workforce. I worked at BIW from 1977 to 2000, alternately in finance and the shipyard workers’ union. During this time, I witnessed a drastic decline of trust between the shipyard’s workforce and its management – particularly its senior management – which began shortly before the union strike of 1985. This breach of trust has continued ever since and appears to have worsened in recent years.

Bath Iron Works can save itself and decrease its labor-hour costs significantly, but first the insidious “good ol’ boy” system that permeates its management – beginning with senior management – has to go. I heard far too many construction workers echoing the complaint, “If management doesn’t care about us, then why should we care?”

In the summer of 1984, Bath Iron Works’ then-CEO delivered a speech to the union workforce asking them to agree to a reduction in their benefits and wages in exchange for ensuring much-needed shipbuilding contracts from the U.S. Navy. The CEO emphasized that, if the union did not accept these reductions, the likelihood of the shipyard’s receiving further ship construction contracts – or any contracts for a period of time – could be limited or even jeopardized. The union flatly turned down his request.

Afterward, as the shipyard continued to receive Navy contracts, the union membership’s trust in BIW’s management began eroding quickly because union employees widely believed that BIW’s CEO had lied to them. Thus far, the shipyard’s management has failed to determine how to improve workforce-management relations.

As labor-hour costs per ship have continued to increase during the past 35 years, shipyard workers have continued to regard Bath Iron Works’ management – again, senior management in particular – as a “good ol’ boys club” that largely serves its own interests and has little or no concern for the well-being of BIW’s construction workers. Because labor-hour costs have greatly increased over this same period, it must be concluded that the “good ol’ boy” system at BIW has been a failure.

There is a bright light, however. When I worked in BIW’s labor cost management, I studied the labor-hour costs of many of the various construction departments throughout the shipyard. While nearly all of the departments were experiencing sizable labor-hour cost increases following the 1985 union strike, one department never increased its costs. Department 32, known as the “rigging” department, managed to hold its labor costs steady the entire time, and its workers – crane operators, rigging service employees, et al. – appeared to be relatively comfortable and optimistic about their positions and their jobs.

Department 32’s foreman, Bob MacDonald, explained to me how he managed to motivate the workers and supervisors in his department: “I treat every single one of the employees in my department … exactly the same way I want to be treated myself. I take a personal interest in the lives of each one of them.”

Then Bob added, “And, you know what? This (Golden Rule approach) has a way of coming back in ‘spades’! I’ll bet you anything that the next time I ask them to do a job for me, they’ll hop right on it and get the job done immediately!” Bob was right. As the labor-hour expenditures of the other departments were increasing significantly, Department 32’s labor-hour costs held steady throughout and never increased.

I envision a renewed era of hope for Bath Iron Works, but it’s going to take a great deal of caring, motivation and understanding on the part of all levels of management to make this happen. BIW’s construction workers are the backbone and the rock of the entire shipyard. These men and women are highly skilled, highly intelligent and highly capable of adapting their skills to the environment they work in.

Along with the Golden Rule’s implementation, the restoration of pre-1985 daily labor-hour productivity rates will take place, thus increasing the shipyard’s workforce productivity significantly – and these rates will very likely continue to climb higher. In addition, a far stronger sense of optimism, trust, gratitude and mutual appreciation will spread throughout the whole shipyard.


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