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The Largest Private-Sector Strike of the Year Is Headed for Union Victory

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After nearly seven weeks on the picket line, Machinists union members will soon vote on a contract that includes everything they’re fighting for.

BATH, MAINE ‚ÄĒ It‚Äôs no coin¬≠ci¬≠dence that the first strike in 20 years at Bath Iron Works (BIW) began months into the Covid-19 pan¬≠dem¬≠ic. While Maine has one of the low¬≠est Covid trans¬≠mis¬≠sion rates in the coun¬≠try, the spread of the dead¬≠ly virus helped spark the strike that has large¬≠ly shut down the ship¬≠yard at BIW ‚ÄĒ one of Maine‚Äôs largest employers. 

In June, when around 4,300 Machin¬≠ists Local S6 union mem¬≠bers at BIW vot¬≠ed over¬≠whelm¬≠ing¬≠ly to strike, many had already soured on man¬≠age¬≠ment over its han¬≠dling of the pandemic.

The walk¬≠out?‚ÄĒ?which rep¬≠re¬≠sents the largest pri¬≠vate-sec¬≠tor strike of the year?‚ÄĒ?has last¬≠ed for near¬≠ly sev¬≠en weeks. But late last week, both sides saw a break¬≠through as a ten¬≠ta¬≠tive agree¬≠ment was reached that appears to hand the union a vic¬≠to¬≠ry on its demands. 

BIW, a Gen¬≠er¬≠al Dynam¬≠ics sub¬≠sidiary that builds bat¬≠tle¬≠ships for the U.S. Navy, nev¬≠er shut down the pro¬≠duc¬≠tion facil¬≠i¬≠ty because it was deemed an ?‚Äúessen¬≠tial busi¬≠ness‚ÄĚ by the U.S. gov¬≠ern¬≠ment. After a BIW work¬≠er test¬≠ed pos¬≠i¬≠tive for the virus in late March, the com¬≠pa¬≠ny encour¬≠aged employ¬≠ees not to report to work. Many did stay home for weeks?‚ÄĒ?but they had to use paid vaca¬≠tion or sick time, or work unpaid. Union lead¬≠ers called for a shut¬≠down with pay while also push¬≠ing state law¬≠mak¬≠ers to pres¬≠sure the Navy to allow the ship¬≠yard to close.

‚ÄúThey said we‚Äôre essen¬≠tial work¬≠ers because we build bat¬≠tle¬≠ships, but how essen¬≠tial are you if you get sick? It‚Äôs scary for a lot of peo¬≠ple,‚ÄĚ said John Louis Cabral III, a ship¬≠yard work¬≠er and Local S6 member. 

Cabral, 34, couldn‚Äôt afford to stay home long: He was hired last year and had lit¬≠tle accrued paid time off. With three kids to sup¬≠port and no access to pan¬≠dem¬≠ic-relat¬≠ed unem¬≠ploy¬≠ment ben¬≠e¬≠fits since he wasn‚Äôt fur¬≠loughed, he went back to the yard.

With employ¬≠ee atten¬≠dance way below nor¬≠mal for weeks, BIW fell fur¬≠ther behind on pro¬≠duc¬≠tion of Navy guid¬≠ed-mis¬≠sile destroy¬≠ers. As part of nego¬≠ti¬≠a¬≠tions with Local S6 for a new three-year con¬≠tract, the com¬≠pa¬≠ny pro¬≠posed changes allow¬≠ing it to hire nonunion sub¬≠con¬≠trac¬≠tors more quick¬≠ly. That and oth¬≠er pro¬≠posed changes to senior¬≠i¬≠ty and work rules in the company‚Äôs ?‚Äúlast, best, and final offer‚ÄĚ on June 13 did not go over well with Local S6. 

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a pow¬≠er strug¬≠gle in the yard right now, and that‚Äôs facts,‚ÄĚ said Cabral, who helps man¬≠age inven¬≠to¬≠ry at the shipyard. 

On June 22, 87% of Local S6 mem¬≠bers vot¬≠ed in favor of strik¬≠ing, even though they‚Äôd lose com¬≠pa¬≠ny-paid health insur¬≠ance dur¬≠ing a pan¬≠dem¬≠ic. Fed¬≠er¬≠al medi¬≠a¬≠tors were brought in to restart nego¬≠ti¬≠a¬≠tions in July, around the same time BIW laid off mem¬≠bers of anoth¬≠er union local and brought in sub¬≠con¬≠trac¬≠tors from out of state to avoid falling fur¬≠ther behind on production. 

‚ÄúWe‚Äôre all stand¬≠ing as one because we don‚Äôt want sub¬≠con¬≠tract¬≠ing in here,‚ÄĚ Chad Bam¬≠ford, a 25-year-old crane rig¬≠ger who‚Äôs worked at BIW since 2017, said on the pick¬≠et line Fri¬≠day. ?‚ÄúThey‚Äôre try¬≠ing to sub¬≠con¬≠tract out our work. We don‚Äôt want out¬≠siders. Give us more over¬≠time. We build the best ships in the world.‚ÄĚ 

The com¬≠pa¬≠ny has said it nev¬≠er want¬≠ed to per¬≠ma¬≠nent¬≠ly out¬≠source work away from the union through sub¬≠con¬≠trac¬≠tors. ?‚ÄúWe seek only effi¬≠cient access to all avail¬≠able resources to improve our abil¬≠i¬≠ty to deliv¬≠er to the US Navy on time,‚ÄĚ BIW Pres¬≠i¬≠dent Dirk Lesko wrote
in June. The ship¬≠yard was six months behind sched¬≠ule at the start of the strike.

Both Bam¬≠ford and Cabral blame pro¬≠duc¬≠tion delays on both the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic and mis¬≠man¬≠age¬≠ment. A BIW spokesper¬≠son did not respond to a request for comment.

Union vic­to­ry in hand?

After weeks of meet¬≠ings that yield¬≠ed lit¬≠tle, union and BIW nego¬≠tia¬≠tors broke through to an agree¬≠ment Fri¬≠day, and it looks like the union got every¬≠thing it wanted. 

In a ten¬≠ta¬≠tive agree¬≠ment announced Sat¬≠ur¬≠day, Local S6 lead¬≠ers trum¬≠pet¬≠ed the reten¬≠tion of sta¬≠tus quo con¬≠tract lan¬≠guage on sub¬≠con¬≠trac¬≠tors and senior¬≠i¬≠ty and work rules. The agree¬≠ment also retains 3% annu¬≠al rais¬≠es for work¬≠ers. A ?‚Äútem¬≠po¬≠rary catchup phase‚ÄĚ will allow expand¬≠ed sub¬≠con¬≠tract¬≠ing through the end of this year, and a joint union-com¬≠pa¬≠ny com¬≠mit¬≠tee will begin meet¬≠ing week¬≠ly to ensure sched¬≠ule gains.

The deal, unan¬≠i¬≠mous¬≠ly approved by the union nego¬≠ti¬≠at¬≠ing com¬≠mit¬≠tee, ?‚Äúpre¬≠serves our sub¬≠con¬≠tract¬≠ing process, pro¬≠tects senior¬≠i¬≠ty pro¬≠vi¬≠sions and calls for a col¬≠lab¬≠o¬≠ra¬≠tive effort to get back on sched¬≠ule,‚ÄĚ Local S6 leader Jay Wadleigh told the Asso¬≠ci¬≠at¬≠ed Press Sat¬≠ur¬≠day. The agree¬≠ment also includes health¬≠care ben¬≠e¬≠fit gains.

‚ÄúWe are pleased to have reached agree¬≠ment with our union part¬≠ners and look for¬≠ward to get¬≠ting back to the job of build¬≠ing ships for the U.S. Navy,‚ÄĚ Phebe Novakovic, chair¬≠man and CEO of Gen¬≠er¬≠al Dynam¬≠ics, said in¬†a¬†state¬≠ment the same¬†day.

Local S6 mem¬≠bers will vote to rat¬≠i¬≠fy the pro¬≠posed con¬≠tract online and via phone lat¬≠er this month. If it‚Äôs approved?‚ÄĒ?which both Cabral and Bam¬≠ford believe is like¬≠ly?‚ÄĒ?the lack of con¬≠ces¬≠sions will stand in con¬≠trast to the last con¬≠tract. Back in 2015, work¬≠ers nar¬≠row¬≠ly vot¬≠ed to give up sched¬≠uled rais¬≠es in favor of one-time bonus¬≠es to pro¬≠tect jobs and help BIW win a new U.S. Coast Guard con¬≠tract (though the com¬≠pa¬≠ny end¬≠ed up los¬≠ing that con¬≠tract to a competitor). 

Gen¬≠er¬≠al Dynam¬≠ics, one of the largest defense con¬≠trac¬≠tors in the coun¬≠try, made $3.5 bil¬≠lion in prof¬≠its last year. In 2018, tax cuts backed by the Trump admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion helped cut the For¬≠tune 500 company‚Äôs effec¬≠tive tax rate almost in half, accord¬≠ing to Labor Notes. That same year, the Maine leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠ture hand¬≠ed BIW a $45 mil¬≠lion tax break.

Bam¬≠ford said he knows some peo¬≠ple don‚Äôt agree with unions?‚ÄĒ?but the strike has only deep¬≠ened his pride in Local S6 and what it can achieve. The ten¬≠ta¬≠tive agree¬≠ment, he said, sounds like a ?‚Äúbig win.‚ÄĚ 

‚ÄúUntil you‚Äôve been a part of a union and you have 4,300 peo¬≠ple stand¬≠ing with you as one for one cause, it‚Äôs a feel¬≠ing you can‚Äôt describe,‚ÄĚ Bam¬≠ford said. ?‚ÄúIt makes you proud to be with it.‚ÄĚ

Cabral agrees:¬†?‚ÄúSol¬≠i¬≠dar¬≠i¬≠ty is awe¬≠some. The strike has built¬†camaraderie.‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/?Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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