Members of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of BWI’s 6,700 employees, march on strike Monday morning in Bath. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BATH — Bath Iron Works’ largest union voted to go on strike at midnight Sunday for the first time in 20 years in a dispute over proposals involving the hiring of subcontractors and changes to seniority at a time when shipyard production has fallen six months behind schedule.

Members of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the company’s 6,700 employees, approved the strike and rejected a controversial three-year contract in voting over the weekend.

Of union members who cast ballots, an overwhelming 87 percent voted to strike, according to the Local S6 Facebook page. Voting, held online and over phones throughout the weekend, wrapped up at noon Sunday. Exact numbers on how many union members voted to reject the proposed contract weren’t made available.

About a dozen union members burst from the union hall when the results were announced early Sunday afternoon, cheering and waving signs that read, “Local S6 on strike.”

“It was the only logical way to vote,” said Ryan Ryder, a pipefitter for the past nine years. “From front to back, the contract attacked the union’s seniority, and the subcontracting needs to stop.”

Ryder said he’s willing to strike for “as long as it takes for us to receive a fair contract for the men and women who make great ships for the Navy.”

The Local S6 strike in 2000 lasted 55 days.

In a statement issued after results were announced, BIW officials said they were “disappointed by this result, but are prepared should a strike occur.”

David Hench, a BIW spokesman, declined to comment further on Sunday.

People form a picket line Sunday in front of John W. Brown Union Hall after BIW workers voted to go on strike starting on Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The vote drew the attention of Maine’s congressional delegation – which called on both sides to return to the bargaining table in search of a compromise – and Navy analysts following the shipyard’s efforts to get its destroyer production back on track despite skilled labor shortages caused by retirements, training issues and pandemic-related work slowdowns.

Production of BIW’s Arleigh Burke-class of guided-missile warships is already running six months behind, even without a strike.

“It makes sense for the union to get the best contract it can,” industry analyst Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said in an interview Sunday evening. “But the reality is BIW needs to stay competitive to win future Navy contracts. If costs run too high, the Navy will buy their ships elsewhere.”

Both analysts and union members considered how a strike would impact BIW’s future standing within the shipbuilding industry.

Chris Weirs, Local S6 president, said Sunday that voting members were simply standing up for good jobs for the Maine economy.

“We are proud to build the best ships in the world and we want to keep it that way,” Weirs said in a statement. “We are fighting for good jobs for the Maine economy. We want jobs at the shipyard to be high quality jobs that members can earn a decent living in over a long career.”

People form a picket line Sunday in front of John W. Brown Union Hall after BIW workers voted to go on strike starting on Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Michael Stacy, a maintenance mechanic of 22 years, said he voted to strike and reject the contract proposal because he didn’t approve of the company’s plan to continue hiring subcontractors. He said he voted with his son in mind, who also works at the shipyard. His son is the fifth generation of BIW workers in his family.

“This contract was worse than the last,” he said. “There’s no future there, and I want a future and a steady job for my son.”

BIW, a subsidiary of global aerospace and defense company General Dynamics, pitched a three-year contract including annual 3 percent pay increases, maintaining current premiums on benefits including 401(k) and life insurance, but increasing health plan co-pays.

The union repeatedly threatened to strike over disputes about seniority privileges and whether the company should hire subcontractors, a demand BIW made during negotiations for its existing contract five years ago. The union yielded to that request because it could allow the shipyard to remain flexible while competing for shipbuilding contracts.

In 2015, BIW was focused on winning a $10.5 billion contract to build Coast Guard cutters. The shipyard warned that losing out on the contract could lead to the elimination of 1,000 jobs. BIW ultimately lost the cutter contract.

In the week after BIW presented its offer for a new contract, negotiations hit an impasse. Prior to the polls opening over the weekend, both union and company leaders said they were willing to continue contract negotiations, but neither party approached the other to make that happen. Both sides issued statements saying they’d be willing to continue contract talks to stave off a strike, but that apparently didn’t happen.

People form a picket line Sunday in front of John W. Brown Union Hall after BIW workers voted to go on strike starting on Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Cynthia Phinney, president of Maine AFL-CIO, a state federation of labor unions, said Sunday that Local S6’s overwhelming vote to strike “should send a crystal clear message to BIW management: Respect your workers, go back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract.”

“The union has struggled and bargained over decades to make these safe, quality jobs that Maine workers can survive in over a long career and earn a decent living,” Phinney said. “BIW proposals roll back job quality, worker protections and safety. … All over this state and country the essential people are rising up to demand respect, justice and a fair share of the wealth we create. The broader labor movement stands with the workers at BIW in their struggle for a fair contract.”

The union expected to start its strike at 12:01 a.m. Monday, when the existing contract expires.

Local S6 night-shift workers were expected to walk out of the shipyard at midnight, before their shifts end, according to the union’s Facebook page. Union members expect a larger picket line to gather on Monday around 7 a.m., when the first shift typically would clock in for work.

“We will stand together until we get the respect and the fair contract that we deserve,” Weirs said.

Anthony McCandless of Bath, a ship fitter at Bath Iron Works, holds his daughter Danielle, 3, while joining a picket line Sunday in front of John W. Brown Union Hall after BIW workers voted to go on strike starting at 12:01 a.m. Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation urged Bath Iron Works and the local Machinists Union to return to the negotiating table after Sunday’s final strike vote was tallied, with Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, both Democrats, speaking out in support of workers’ rights.

In a letter sent out Sunday, Golden told members of Local S6: “I am 100% in support of you on the picket line.”

He said he was committed to working with both management and union leaders to support BIW’s work, and cited the challenges that BIW has had to overcome, including the Navy reversing course on its Zumwalt-class destroyer and a skilled worker shortage, but made it clear he would stand with striking workers in solidarity come Monday.

“As skilled shipbuilders, you are a vital asset to America,” Golden wrote to union members. “You deserve fair pay for a hard day’s work, and the healthcare and retirement benefits that are key to keeping the middle-class life alive not only for you, but also for the next generation of shipbuilders in Maine.”

He singled out the subcontracting authority that BIW wanted in its proposed contract for special criticism, saying that what may feel like a good, affordable solution today could hurt the long-term future of Maine’s shipbuilding culture and the Navy’s defense system. He wrote: “You know the saying: Good work ain’t cheap and cheap work ain’t good.”

Pingree called on BIW to resume talks and find a compromise that protects workers’ health and safety.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic has made anything crystal clear, it’s that frontline workers who are showing up to work every day, putting themselves and their family at risk to keep our economy going, deserve to be heard and protected,” Pingree said. “The skilled employees at BIW are no different. Worker protections for the men and women who build the best ships in the world should be a priority that can bring both sides to agreement.”

A small group forms a picket line Sunday in front of John W. Brown Union Hall after BIW workers voted to go on strike starting on Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine’s two U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, issued statements of concern Sunday that struck a more neutral tone.

Collins called on both sides to return to the negotiating table to avoid harm to workers and the economy.

“I hope that the negotiators from Local S6 and management will return to the bargaining table quickly to resolve their differences,” Collins said. “The inability to reach an agreement not only affects the skilled men and women employed at the shipyard but also the many workers in the supply chain, the economy of our State, and the ability of BIW workers to deliver much-needed ships to our Navy.”

A King spokesman said he was keeping an eye on the contract dispute and hoping for an agreement.

“Senator King and his team are tracking this matter closely, hoping they can find a mutually satisfactory resolution,” the spokesman, Matthew Felling, said on Sunday.

King was governor of Maine during the Local S6 strike in 2000.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Mills could not be reached for comment on the union vote Sunday.

In the days leading up to the vote, Navy analysts told The Times Record a strike would send a message to BIW executives, but also would slow already lagging production at the shipyard, potentially hurting its employees in the long run. The company is already at least six months behind schedule.

“If a strike builds morale and unity in the workforce, that’s good, but it’ll put BIW in a tough position,” said Craig Hooper, a national security consultant who writes about Naval affairs for several publications. “You can win a battle, but lose the war.”

On Sunday, after the vote, the Lexington Institute’s Thompson said BIW is under pressure to stay competitive with its main rival, Ingalls Shipbuilding of Mississippi. Ingalls has several advantages: It is a much bigger yard located in a year-round boat-building climate in a pro-management political climate where the cost of doing business is cheaper. And it’s closer to existing naval bases.

The union is operating under the assumption that BIW’s future with the Navy is assured, but Thompson worries that it is not. He said the Navy is already facing a major budget crunch, and is facing some tough decisions. Putting the merits of the contract fight aside, now is not the time for a shipyard to be falling behind or getting more expensive to run, he said.

“Obviously, for a union to decide to strike in the middle of a recession, they must feel very strongly,” Thompson said. “But if those things make your ships unaffordable? Given what’s going on right now, with the Navy budget being what it is, the yard needs to be able to stand on its own merits. It needs to be on time and on budget.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: