Members of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of BIW’s 6,700 employees, march on strike June 22, in Bath. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

BATH — Bath Iron Works filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the striking Local S6 of the Machinists Union for violating federal labor law by threatening to fine members who return to work during the strike.

“In a communication to its membership, union leaders threatened so-called ‘scabs’ who cross the picket line with heavy fines and loss of benefits,” BIW wrote in a statement Friday.

“Once we return to work, anyone who took the advice from management and resigned from the union will still be required to pay full union dues,” the union’s statement reads. “The union will fine every single member who crossed the picket line for the total amount of wages they individually earned from BIW until the strike is over.”

The union’s statement concludes with the phrase, “No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.” That’s a excerpt from a pro-union poem, ‘Ode to a Scab,’ written by American novelist Jack London in 1915.

Shipyard officials argued that amounted to a threat of violence against anyone who breaks the picket line.

Local S6 Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the company’s 6,700 employees, rejected a three-year contract proposal and voted to strike on June 22. The shipyard’s demand to continue subcontracting and change seniority privileges remain the major points of contention between the company and the union. That strike is approaching its fourth week, with no signs of resolution in sight.

Union officials told members that leaving the union to go back to work would mean losing union benefits, including health insurance, and the right to vote or run for a leadership position within the union.

Tim Suitter, Local S6 spokesman, said the union issued the statement in response to “propaganda” BIW mailed to union members that included information on how to resign from the union.

“We wanted to make sure people know there are consequences for resigning,” he said.

According to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, if a member of a union on strike resigns before returning to work, they cannot be fined or otherwise disciplined by the union.

However, the nonprofit cautions that anyone who resigns from their union “will lose any rights under the union’s constitution which are available only to members, such as voting in union elections and on ratification of the collective bargaining agreement.”

“We are extremely disappointed that union leaders would make false and threatening statements to the very employees they are supposed to represent,” said BIW President Dirk Lesko. “We take these issues very seriously and will continue to ensure our employees’ rights are protected.”

Local S6 leadership could not be reached Friday evening for comment on BIW’s decision to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Suitter said sending Local S6 members information on how to resign from the union was the latest in a series of attempts by the shipyard to break the union.

“They want to starve people out and have people turn on one another,” he said. “They’re going to continue trying to divide people.”

Suitter said union officials will not tolerate any members who harass other members who resign and return to work during the strike.

Local S6 members have the right to work during the strike, but must resign from the union first to avoid union fines, according to BIW spokesman David Hench.

“Those employees who resign their membership in the union prior to crossing the picket line may not be fined, contrary to what the union indicates in its post,” Hench wrote. “Employees who have resigned their membership in the union also may not be required to pay full union dues, either during or after the strike.”

Hench declined to comment on how many Local S6 members have returned to work during the strike or whether there have been incidents of harassment.

Peter Bennett, a labor lawyer at the Portland-based Bennet Law Firm, said threatening to fine employees for crossing the picket line is something unions typically do “to keep their members in line during a strike.”

“Every union has a set of rules and when someone becomes a member of a union, they sign a document that’s a legally enforceable commitment,” said Bennett. “Under the union’s constitution, they have the right to file charges against a member.”

He said once a union member leaves their union, they can go to work without receiving a fine, but warned retribution could come when the strike ends.

“BIW should be careful when advising their employees,” Bennett cautioned. “In my career I’ve seen strike-related violence. When strikes drag on like this, it gets more emotional.”

[ mtm-related-link url=”https://www.pressherald.com/2020/07/05/biw-strike-continues-into-third-week-with-no-resolution/?rel=related”]BIW strike continues into 3rd week with no resolution[/mtm-related-link]

No end in sight

There was little movement toward restarting contract negotiations during the strike’s third week, though both union and company officials met separately with a federal mediator.

A federal mediator can be called upon when an agency and union have reached an impasse in a dispute. The parties can seek mediation help from a third party in an attempt to informally resolve their differences.

Suitter said the union’s negotiating committee discussed the union’s demands with the mediator on Monday, but couldn’t take further action until the shipyard’s representatives met with the mediator.

BIW leadership met with the mediator a few times throughout the week, according to Hench, but he declined to comment on what was discussed and what the next steps are toward resolving the deadlock.

While Local S6 continues to picket outside the shipyard’s gates, BIW announced Tuesday it will begin laying off members of Local S7 of the machinists union temporarily due to overstaffing.

Lesko said the layoffs are necessary after Local S6 went on strike, eliminating over half of the shipyard’s workforce. As a result, the company hired additional subcontractors and moved workers to different positions. However, the company found “some functions that directly support production are beginning to run out of work to do.”

“While we have explored all available options to reassign impacted employees to other jobs, unfortunately no such opportunities are available,” Lesko wrote in a letter to employees.

George Edwards, Local S7 assistant directing representative, said 25 to 30 workers could be laid off.

“While these layoffs are temporary in nature, their impact on employees and their families is real and immediate,” Lesko wrote. “At a time when we are behind schedule, it is frustrating to be sending our employees home. However, the disruption of the strike leaves no other option.”

Edwards argued Lesko is directly responsible for the strike and subsequent layoffs because he offered Local S6 a contract that was rejected by 87% of its members.

“These layoffs are BIW’s way of putting pressure on Local S6,” Edwards, the Local S7 representative, said. “Lesko just wants to break the union. He could easily end the strike by going back to the negotiating table. (Local S7) members know what the company is trying to do and we stand behind Local S6.”

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