Growing up in Maine – especially in the midcoast – it’s easy to view Bath Iron Works, with its hulking buildings and enormous cranes, as an indelible feature of the landscape, like Mount Katahdin, the Allagash, or the ocean itself.

That’s easy, but it’s wrong: BIW could close just like any other business.

If that seems unthinkable, consider the case of nearby Maine Yankee. Although it wasn’t 100 years old like BIW, it too seemed like a feature of the coastal landscape to many of us. It survived multiple attempts by opponents to shut it down via statewide referendum, and was a backbone of not only the town of Wiscasset, but the entire state, providing a quarter of Maine’s power. Then it was hit by a series of safety violations and the parent company decided it was too expensive to operate, shutting it down in 1996.

To be sure, BIW isn’t going to just close overnight, like a chain restaurant or retail store that can easily be shuttered the moment it ceases to be profitable. Right now, the shipyard is scheduled to build 11 more Arleigh Burke-class destroyers over the next decade. That backlog is, in the short term, good for the shipyard, as it will likely allow it to weather the ongoing pandemic. It’s wrong, though, to presume that the backlog is a given, or that BIW will indefinitely be provided with enough work by the U.S. Navy.

As with any other business, if Bath Iron Works can’t continue to compete for contracts, the Navy – and other potential customers –  will take the work elsewhere. We’ve seen this often enough in recent years, such as when BIW lost out on a contract to build guided-missile frigates for the Navy or a  new class of cutters for the Coast Guard. Part of the reason that Bath lost out on those contracts was due to their full schedule, but it was also due to a cost issue: Building ships at BIW has become too expensive as of late.

That explains why the shipyard has been trying to cut costs recently. BIW’s parent company General Dynamics knows it is fortunate to be busy with work right now, but they also know that there will inevitably come a time when the backlog is down and it will need to win the next contract. That’s why it has been using non-union contractors to cut costs on the current project and become more competitive for the next – one of the major causes of the current strike.

Now, it’s perfectly understandable that the company would want to try to become more competitive and cut costs where it can. That’s the job of corporate leadership at its most basic level: to ensure that the company remains profitable and open. It’s also understandable that Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, would want to protect its employees and preserve its positions at the company. They don’t want to see their membership base undercut, and General Dynamics shouldn’t be using contractors simply to undermine the union.

However, because Bath Iron Works isn’t an independent company anymore, the bargaining position of the union isn’t as strong as it might be otherwise. An independent Maine company – especially one formed around specialized facilities, like a shipyard – isn’t going to just pack up and move. Shipyards aren’t a dime a dozen, and they can’t be plunked down on any empty lot like a big box store.

If, though, General Dynamics ever reaches the conclusion that Bath Iron Works isn’t making enough money, it could decide to simply shut the shipyard down. The company could try to find some way to squeeze as much money as possible out of it beforehand: They would probably attempt to sell it, or turn to massive layoffs in an effort to cut costs. That would certainly be far worse than hiring contractors. For General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works is just one piece of its gigantic portfolio – but for Bath (and much of midcoast Maine), it’s a key component of the economy.

That’s why it’s such a disappointment to see both the company and the union seemingly so stubborn in their positions. General Dynamics wants the shipyard to remain profitable, and the union should want that, too. Hopefully, they can both figure out a way to move in that direction, rather than continuing to treat negotiations as a zero-sum game. There should be a way for both sides to find a win here, rather than everyone losing.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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