BATH — Bath Iron Works and its largest union agreed last week on how employees can protest to show their disapproval in the shipyard’s contract negotiation proposals as the union weighs a potential strike.

Last Friday, employees belonging to the Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, started making noise by hammering pieces of metal for one minute every hour, a practice the union calls “putting the hammer down.”

Tim Suitter, communications representative for Local S6, said the practice “is a way to show you’re not happy with the way negotiations are going.”

“A lot of people are upset, and when people have had enough, we stand together,” Suitter said.

A Memorandum of Agreement, signed by both company and union leaders, clarifies that if employees strike any part of a ship or other BIW property, they will be reprimanded. However, employees can hammer pieces of scrap metal or personal belongings, such as toolboxes or lunch boxes.

The memorandum, posted on the union’s Facebook page, states that a “miscommunication” between the union and the company led to an unknown number of employees being disciplined for the act. The agreement also states that by signing the document, the union “is not agreeing that discipline is warranted in any particular circumstance” and reserves the right to file a grievance over any disciplinary action.

Local S6 union members put the hammer down during contract negotiations in 1997 and again in 2000, but it’s unknown whether workers were disciplined for the act at the time, according to Suitter.

David Hench, BIW spokesman, did not comment on the situation and said the company “does not publicly discuss discipline involving employees.”

Jami Bellefleur, a BIW painter of seven years, said she began hammering a piece of scrap metal last Friday, June 5, then again on Monday, June 8. She was brought to a labor office with a coworker both days and was later suspended from work for five days on Monday.

“We sat there for three hours on Friday afternoon and then sat there for seven hours on Monday afternoon,” said Bellefleur. “We’ve been told by our national legal team (putting the hammer down) is a protected act.”

Employees have the right to “self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” under the National Labor Relations Act.

Bellefleur said she is frustrated with the company because she hasn’t received a raise in five years. She chose to make noise with her fellow union members “to show the company we’re one solid union with one solid voice even though there are thousands of us.”

This memorandum comes on the heels of a union statement, released Monday, in which the company rejected the company’s contract proposal and said it is prepared to strike.

Union officials wrote that BIW’s requests would “not only create a workforce of poorly paid subcontractors but also force more than 1,200 mechanics with over 30 years of service into early retirement, taking with them a vast amount of shipbuilding knowledge and expertise.”

Prior to the start of negotiations between the company and the union on May 26, Chirs Wiers, president of Local S6, told the Times Record the union is focused on negotiating annual wage increases for its members, but the shipyard’s primary concern is getting back on schedule amid a pandemic.

“If BIW doesn’t cease its union-busting tactics and come back to the table with a suitable offer, our membership will likely have no other option but to strike,” Weirs wrote. “The last thing we want is a strike, but we are prepared to do so if needed.”

In a statement released Tuesday, BIW officials wrote the company “is not trying to ‘bust’ [Local S6] or undermine its rightful role as the representative of our workforce.”

According to the statement, the company’s proposed changes are designed to “efficiently assign employees with the right skills where they are needed” and “attempt to solve for unpredictable attendance on overtime shifts and limited availability of a few critical skill areas that disrupt the flow of work in the shipyard.”

The company added its proposal includes “annual wage increases for all employees in each year of the contract, maintains three different health care options, continues the 401k plan and International Association of Machinists pension and expands life insurance options.”

Negotiations are scheduled to conclude Friday, giving employees time to review the new contract. Voting begins June 19 and closes June 21, the day the existing contract is set to expire.

The union plans to hold a rally outside the union hall on Washington Street in Bath on Wednesday at 6 a.m.

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