WISCASSET — On Monday, Bath Iron Works’ Local S6 of the Machinists Union voted overwhelmingly to launch a strike, which is the third strike at BIW in the last 35 years. Throughout this period, the union has been echoing this resounding message: BIW’s union workers do not trust senior management.

This distrust began during the events that led to the union strike of 1985, in which the union’s laborers believed that BIW’s then-CEO tried to mislead them into believing that if the union did not accept certain reductions in wages and benefits, future Navy contracts for the shipyard would be severely jeopardized. The union resoundingly rejected the CEO’s proposal, and the shipyard subsequently wound up receiving Navy contracts anyway.

This breach of trust has never healed and has deeply and steadily affected morale, which in turn has caused productivity to deteriorate. One morning in 1999, I was on a bus that transports BIW employees across the bridge from Woolwich to Bath. I asked a young worker who was sitting across from me how he was doing. He replied, “You want to know how I’m doing? Right now, I’m fine. But the minute I walk through that (BIW) gate, my whole attitude just goes right downhill!” If I had a nickel for every time I heard union laborers making similar protests against their work environment at the shipyard, I would have a wheelbarrow overflowing with nickels.

Meanwhile, BIW’s senior management has continued to bury their heads in the sand by fantasizing that this deep-seated distrust on the part of the labor force will eventually go away. Senior management’s willful denial is reflected by their failure to realize that construction productivity at the shipyard is not controlled by senior management. Instead, it is controlled by the workforce.

Decades ago, senior management and the union signed a contract that established the rules by which a union laborer could be fired for lack of production. The intent of the rules was to prevent a supervisor or manager from unfairly singling out or discriminating against a laborer for reasons other than his or her work performance. The result is that it is essentially impossible for a worker to be fired because of lack of productivity.

Nevertheless, senior management continue to behave as though this reality does not exist. It is high time that senior management finally woke up and began recognizing that, in BIW’s unique work environment, it is the workforce – not senior management or their supervisors – that ultimately manages productivity. However, senior management can influence productivity.

During the years prior to the 1985 strike, there existed a much stronger bond of trust and goodwill between senior management and the workforce, which produced positive results. Morale in the workforce was much stronger, and productivity flourished throughout the yard. The highly complimentary adage attributed to the ships that BIW constructed, “ahead of schedule and under budget,” continually resonated throughout the shipyard and the community.

Sadly, that adage has been lost for the last 35 years because the shipyard’s senior management has distanced itself from the workforce. Instead, they have subcontracted jobs and tried to cut costs in ways that have eroded morale and productivity even further.

It is time for senior management to restore an environment of trust, strong morale and high productivity by extending an open hand, by visiting laborers regularly on the ships and in the buildings and by listening to what they have to say. Once this atmosphere of positive communication has been restored, BIW will regain the proud, successful and independent workforce that has always brought honor, strength and stability to the shipyard and our community.

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