Shipyard workers to begin voting this week on labor pact

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FILE – In this July 25, 2020, file photo, striking Bath Iron Works shipbuilders march in solidarity, Saturday, in Bath, Maine. The production workers went on strike June 22 after overwhelmingly rejecting the company’s final contract proposal. The dispute centers on subcontractors, work rules and seniority. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

BATH, Maine (AP) — Shipyard workers who have maintained pickets for nearly two months during a global pandemic will have the final say on a proposed labor pact at Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works.

The tentative agreement that’s the subject of a vote starting Friday represents several victories for 4,300 production workers, according to Machinists Local S6.

It retains the previous language when it comes to hiring subcontractors, though that process will be streamlined. It limits “loans” of employees from one one specialty to another. And decisions on long-term loans must take into account seniority except on rare occasions.

The company, meanwhile, gets mediated discussions between the union and company aimed at getting back on schedule. Subcontractors, including those hired during the strike, will remain on through year’s end.

Getting the shipyard back on production schedule is important if the company wants to win more contracts, Dirk Lesko, the company’s president, has said in the past. The shipyard was already six months behind schedule before the pandemic and strike.

Those mediated discussions would provide an opportunity for both sides to regain trust, said district union official Jay Wadleigh.

“If both sides start collaborating and truly listening to each other, then the possibilities are limitless. We should be able get caught up on the schedule and have a good work environment for everybody,” he said.

The company declined comment ahead of the vote.

This was an unusual strike in that workers weren’t fighting over wages or health benefits. They would be getting 3% pay raises for three years, and their health care package was largely unchanged.

But workers were willing to risk their health — losing company-paid health insurance — to push back against what they saw as changes in work rules and attacks on seniority. Most of all, workers said the hiring of subcontractors could imperil their shipbuilding jobs in the future despite the company’s assurances that it wants to hire more shipbuilders. The company hired 1,800 workers last year and hopes to hire another 1,000 this year.

The last strike, in 2020, lasted 55 days. This strike will have lasted 63 days if workers approve the contract when the vote ends at noon Sunday, the day the count will be announced. Voting is taking place online and by telephone. The union’s negotiating committee unanimously recommended approval.

The stakes are high.

Bath Iron Works is one of the Navy’s largest shipbuilders and a major employer in Maine, with 6,800 workers, and a prolonged strike could further harm a local economy hard-hit by the pandemic-related job losses.

The Navy, meanwhile, is eager to build up the fleet at a time of increased competition from Russia and China.

The General Dynamics subsidiary competes against Mississippi’s larger Ingalls Shipbuilding for contracts to build Navy destroyers, which can battle submarines and ships and provide fleet air defense.

The test of wills at this shipyard on the Kennebec River has played out during a pandemic that further strained relations.

Union workers wanted to close the shipyard for two weeks but production continued even as hundreds of workers stayed home. The shipyard is considered essential by the defense department.

Jamie Lavallee, an outside machinist who’s worked 32 years at the shipyard, said the shipyard has a lot of work to do to mend fences.

“They need to take ownership for the mistakes that they made. Their attitude is, ‘When something goes wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault.’ Fix the problem and stop pointing fingers,” he said.

Alvin Hanks, an electrician for 33 years, said the company can rebuild some trust and get back on track by listening to the workers who feel that their ideas for efficiency were ignored.

“The company needs to let us be involved in some of the decision making, actually listen to us, and then follow through,” he said. “We have great ideas. Implement the ideas. Just give us a chance.”

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