Some 4,300 members of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Local Lodge S6 are on strike against Bath Iron Works (BIW) in Bath, Maine. Workers voted with an overwhelming majority of 87 percent to strike when their current contract expired at midnight, June 22.
“Almost 90 percent of our members voted, and almost 90 percent of them not only rejected the contract, but they authorized the strike,” says Tim Suitter, union spokesman and twenty-two-year veteran shipyard sandblaster. “The strike was driven by the younger workers.”
Management is demanding concessionary contract language that would give them the freedom to hire in more temporary, non-union labor, keeping more and more workers stuck at the entry-level rate of $15.97 an hour — driving down wages in the shipyard on average, especially for new hires with previous training and experience. BIW president Dirk Lesko touted recent hires and argued the shipyard needs more flexibility to complete Navy contracts, despite hiring some two thousand entry-level employees over the last couple years. These are standard management arguments, in the twenty-first or any other century — one that union members, unsurprisingly, aren’t buying.
“They want to be able to bring in subcontractors and have them do my job and move me to do someone else’s job,” Suitter says. “According to our prior contact, they could bring in subcontractors, but they had to go through a joint process, they had to present it to the union and there had to be certain criteria met. But they don’t want to have to do that. Most of the subcontractors are non-union. … Management thought they were going to be able to just walk right though, but you saw a big rise up from the younger ship builders who said, ‘This isn’t right. We’re not going to roll over and let them take all the protections that we would expect and want as our bodies start breaking down the more years we put in.’”
Threatening to Lay off About 220 Members of Sister Union Local S7
Shipbuilding is dangerous and grueling work, so union power on the job is crucial for workers over the long haul. “I could have been on the second shift for twelve years, even with a family, and then finally because of seniority have the opportunity to come on the day shift,” Suitter points out. “But now they can say, ‘We need that skill, we need you to go back to second shift. We’re going to move you to this facility or that facility without any restriction.’”
Unionization in the private sector, especially manufacturing, has declined over the last decades. More than wages and benefits are at stake in this fight.
“It’s a physical job. People put thirty years in, it’s a long career. And over that career they’ve had surgeries cause their body breaks down from working on steel all day long,” explains Suitter. “I’m a sandblaster. I remove rust, primer, paint, what have you, and clean it to bare metal. We use big industrial blasters with two-inch hoses with steel shot.”
The company’s “last, best, and final offer” included a $1,200 signing bonus and 3 percent annual raises over the terms of the three-year contract. But it also called for health insurance premium, deductible, and co-pay increases of 5 percent.
BIW is Maine’s fourth-largest employer and the one of the US Navy’s largest shipbuilders, drawing workers from all sixteen Maine counties from Kittery to Aroostook. Founded in 1884, generations of union members have worked at the shipyard, where the Kennebec River runs into the Gulf of Maine in Bath about forty-minutes north of Portland. General Dynamics, ranked number ninety-two on the Forbes Fortune 500 list in 2019, purchased BIW in 1995 and has long sought to wear down the union.
While union members agreed to concessions in 2015 and 2016 that gave up scheduled raises for one-time bonuses to cut costs and help the company secure more government contracts, General Dynamics has ridden high on the hog. As IAMAW International President Robert Martinez, Jr wrote in a letter to President Trump, the 2017 “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced the company’s effective tax rate from 28.6% in 2017 down to 17.8 percent in 2018. With this windfall, General Dynamics greatly increased stock buybacks and dividend payments, giving nearly $2.9 billion to their stockholders in 2018 alone.” This comes on top of a $45 million state of Maine tax break.
After pledging to bargain in good faith, management dragged its feet for the first two weeks of the strike and is now playing hardball, cutting off health insurance for Local S6 members, threatening to lay off about 220 members of sister union Local S7, and calling in strikebreakers, “ramping up our subcontracting,” as Lesko put it in a July 2 letter.
“The company said they need an answer [to negotiations] that will allow them to succeed,” replied IAM Local S6 President Chris Wiers. “The use of subcontractors will not succeed. They need to listen to the workers. They know how to build the ships.”
Putting the Hammer Down
The Southern Maine Labor Council organized a car caravan to support the strike in Bath, and local labor unions have visited picket lines and donated to the union’s strike support fund. It looks like the two sides are dug in for a long fight.
It isn’t the first time. In 2000, LS6 members struck for fifty-five days before wrestling the company to a draw. Alvin “Doug” Hanks, sixty-three, a veteran of the 2000 strike has worked at BIW for nearly 33 years, explained to local media that he’s back out on the line to defend the younger generation: “It’s time we showed corporate America that they can’t just replace the hard workers and keep this country going.”
The company’s low priority on worker safety was driven home during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Union members called for the shipyard to close, but the company refused, finally granting workers two weeks unpaid leave if they were concerned about the virus. Rob Hopper, a six-year BIW employee who continued working told local media, “With a son with epilepsy, you never know what’s going to happen. For me, it wasn’t worth the risk.”
On March 24, just 41 percent of workers reported to their shift after the first case of Covid-19 was detected at BIW. After a second worker tested positive, office workers at BIW asked to be allowed to telecommute, but management refused, claiming “national security” concerns. After Gov. Janet Mills complained that BIW was not taking adequate precautions, management directed workers to the CDC website for instructions on how to make a mask, writing, “Some examples of acceptable face coverings are bandanas, scarfs, pieces of fabric held in place with elastic and ski masks that cover the mouth and nose.”
As the contract deadline approached, union members on the deck plate “started to show their frustrations in what we call ‘put the hammer down,’” says Suitter. “It was really the younger kids who got it started and really carried it forward and they would put the hammer down for one minute every hour on the hour by banging on steel.” Management responded by suspending workers.
Jami Bellefleur, a BIW painter of seven years, told local media that she was suspended after hammering on scrap metal and ordered to sit idly in the shipyards labor office. “We sat there for three hours on Friday afternoon, and then sat there for seven hours on Monday afternoon. We’ve been told by our national legal team [that putting the hammer down] is a protected act.” The union defended all the suspended workers and won them back pay for the time they lost.
Local S6 members are determined, but management shows few signs of backing down. Union negotiators met with federal mediators this week, and company representatives are supposed to do the same in the coming days. Three weeks in, workers are hanging tough on the picket lines, but they will need support from unions across the country and the people of Maine to win.
BIW used to be an employer of choice for workers across Maine. General Dynamics wants to break that tradition and force its employees into a race to the bottom. The only thing strong enough to stop them will be union solidarity.
As Suiter puts it, “Bath Iron Works is owned by General Dynamics, and they don’t care about the people who work for the shipyard or the state for that matter. It’s the same story, blame the workers. Our members saw that they were literally trying to break the union. But we’ll put our foot down until they get the message that we’re not going away.”