Several members of Local S6, the largest union at Bath Iron Works, on strike in June 2020. BIW’s contract with Local S6 expires Aug. 20, and the union has expressed willingness to strike again. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record file photo

Bath Iron Works’ largest union signaled a willingness to go on strike again, voting almost unanimously this week in favor of a strike sanction as leverage for upcoming contract negotiations.

Machinists Union Local S6, which represents about 4,250 of the shipyard’s 6,500 workers, said the vote authorizes benefit checks if members vote to go on strike, sending an early message to shipyard leadership a few months before sitting down to try to come to an agreement on the details of the next contract.

“This vote is vital to our negotiation efforts,” the union said in a statement. “We have no power to have our demands met without the ability to strike. We need to show the company that we are ready to strike if it becomes necessary.”

The union went on strike during its last contract negotiation in 2020 over objections to the shipyard’s hiring of subcontractors and planned changes to seniority. The two sides compromised on a new contract that included 3% pay raises.

This time around, the union said it is “seeking a contract that reflects the respect that the members deserve. More details will become available when negotiations begin.” A union spokesperson declined to specify what the union wants to see in a new deal.

The union said 99% of members who voted Thursday approved the strike sanction. A strike sanction is a common union tactic, but typically not this far in advance of negotiations. 


Local S6 used another common union tactic — erecting a giant inflatable “corporate fat cat” outside its hall on Washington Street that was visible to anyone entering the shipyard. The cat had one paw squeezing the neck of a union worker while its other paw held a bag of money. In front of it was a sign urging union members to approve the strike sanction.

The union’s current contract, which it signed after the two-month strike in 2020, expires Aug. 20. Negotiations are slated to begin in late July.

“This is an important milestone that we have to come through together,” BIW spokesperson David Hench said in a statement. “We are looking forward to a productive and positive bargaining process so we can continue the important work we are doing building Navy ships.”

The last strike, along with the coronavirus pandemic, slowed the shipyard’s production of Navy destroyers — the only ships it builds. BIW competes with Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi to build the vessels. BIW is currently building six destroyers and recently completed the USS Carl M. Levin, which will be commissioned into service June 24.

Craig Hooper, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based defense consultant firm Themistocles Advisory Group, said another strike could prove disastrous.

“Bath has had a rocky period and it has recovered and seems to be producing ships that the Navy is happy with,” he said. “You have a yard with a strong backlog, a good solid product, and you don’t want to mess that up.”


He said Ingalls Shipbuilding, which is bigger with more than 11,000 workers, could have more production capacity soon as it nears the end of its contract building National Security Cutters for the Coast Guard, and the LPD-17 San Antonio-class amphibious ships it builds face scrutiny from Pentagon officials over their worth.

“You don’t want to have a labor issue that makes your competitor look more favorable than they already do,” Hooper said.

He said while the Local S6 union may have the upper hand in negotiations due to labor shortages and worker retention problems, it should proceed with caution.

“BIW has been second fiddle to Ingalls. Raising the price of labor in the yard will make the yard less competitive and make it harder for BIW to get out from under (Ingalls Shipbuilding),” he said. “It’s a real tricky challenge.”

Hooper also pointed to General Dynamics, BIW’s owner.

“BIW is not a major player in the General Dynamics balance sheet,” he said. “Their focus is on the Columbia- and Virginia-class submarines.


“While the workforce is at an advantage here, they should move with caution, because General Dynamics may cut its losses and say, ‘We want to exit the business and sell the yard.’ And that could happen,” Hooper said.

The contract negotiations will be a major test for BIW President Charles Krugh, who was hired in 2022 after former President Dirk Lesko resigned. Lesko was in charge during the 2020 strike.

In April, Admiral Mike Gilday, U.S. chief of naval operations, visited BIW and commended the shipyard for speeding up production, saying it’s 30%-60% ahead of schedule in some phases. Krugh attributed it to “getting back to basics.”

“We have the best workforce, bar none, in the nation,” Krugh said at the time. “You look at what the welders do, what the pipefitters do, it’s absolutely amazing.”

Hooper said Krugh has been steady at the helm.

“I’ve heard good things about him,” Hooper said. “It seems like Bath is performing under his leadership.”

Bath Iron Works is Maine’s fourth-largest private employer after MaineHealth, Hannaford and Walmart.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, a nonprofit defense industry think tank, agreed another strike could be disastrous.

“Both the company and the union are strongly incentivized to come to an agreement,” he said. “Nobody wants another strike.”

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