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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 — It’s no coin­ci­dence that the first strike in 20 years at Bath Iron Works (BIW) began months into the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. While Maine has one of the low­est Covid trans­mis­sion rates in the coun­try, the spread of the dead­ly virus helped spark the strike that has large­ly shut down the ship­yard at BIW — one of Maine’s largest employers. 

In June, when around 4,300 Machin­ists Local S6 union mem­bers at BIW vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to strike, many had already soured on man­age­ment over its han­dling of the pandemic.

The walk­out?—?which rep­re­sents the largest pri­vate-sec­tor strike of the year?—?has last­ed for near­ly sev­en weeks. But late last week, both sides saw a break­through as a ten­ta­tive agree­ment was reached that appears to hand the union a vic­to­ry on its demands. 

BIW, a Gen­er­al Dynam­ics sub­sidiary that builds bat­tle­ships for the U.S. Navy, nev­er shut down the pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty because it was deemed an ?“essen­tial busi­ness” by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. After a BIW work­er test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus in late March, the com­pa­ny encour­aged employ­ees not to report to work. Many did stay home for weeks?—?but they had to use paid vaca­tion or sick time, or work unpaid. Union lead­ers called for a shut­down with pay while also push­ing state law­mak­ers to pres­sure the Navy to allow the ship­yard to close.

“They said we’re essen­tial work­ers because we build bat­tle­ships, but how essen­tial are you if you get sick? It’s scary for a lot of peo­ple,” said John Louis Cabral III, a ship­yard work­er and Local S6 member. 

Cabral, 34, couldn’t afford to stay home long: He was hired last year and had lit­tle accrued paid time off. With three kids to sup­port and no access to pan­dem­ic-relat­ed unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits since he wasn’t fur­loughed, he went back to the yard.

With employ­ee atten­dance way below nor­mal for weeks, BIW fell fur­ther behind on pro­duc­tion of Navy guid­ed-mis­sile destroy­ers. As part of nego­ti­a­tions with Local S6 for a new three-year con­tract, the com­pa­ny pro­posed changes allow­ing it to hire nonunion sub­con­trac­tors more quick­ly. That and oth­er pro­posed changes to senior­i­ty and work rules in the company’s ?“last, best, and final offer” on June 13 did not go over well with Local S6. 

“It’s a pow­er strug­gle in the yard right now, and that’s facts,” said Cabral, who helps man­age inven­to­ry at the shipyard. 

On June 22, 87% of Local S6 mem­bers vot­ed in favor of strik­ing, even though they’d lose com­pa­ny-paid health insur­ance dur­ing a pan­dem­ic. Fed­er­al medi­a­tors were brought in to restart nego­ti­a­tions in July, around the same time BIW laid off mem­bers of anoth­er union local and brought in sub­con­trac­tors from out of state to avoid falling fur­ther behind on production. 

“We’re all stand­ing as one because we don’t want sub­con­tract­ing in here,” Chad Bam­ford, a 25-year-old crane rig­ger who’s worked at BIW since 2017, said on the pick­et line Fri­day. ?“They’re try­ing to sub­con­tract out our work. We don’t want out­siders. Give us more over­time. We build the best ships in the world.” 

The com­pa­ny has said it nev­er want­ed to per­ma­nent­ly out­source work away from the union through sub­con­trac­tors. ?“We seek only effi­cient access to all avail­able resources to improve our abil­i­ty to deliv­er to the US Navy on time,” BIW Pres­i­dent Dirk Lesko wrote
in June. The ship­yard was six months behind sched­ule at the start of the strike.

Both Bam­ford and Cabral blame pro­duc­tion delays on both the pan­dem­ic and mis­man­age­ment. A BIW spokesper­son did not respond to a request for comment.

Union vic­to­ry in hand?

After weeks of meet­ings that yield­ed lit­tle, union and BIW nego­tia­tors broke through to an agree­ment Fri­day, and it looks like the union got every­thing it wanted. 

In a ten­ta­tive agree­ment announced Sat­ur­day, Local S6 lead­ers trum­pet­ed the reten­tion of sta­tus quo con­tract lan­guage on sub­con­trac­tors and senior­i­ty and work rules. The agree­ment also retains 3% annu­al rais­es for work­ers. A ?“tem­po­rary catchup phase” will allow expand­ed sub­con­tract­ing through the end of this year, and a joint union-com­pa­ny com­mit­tee will begin meet­ing week­ly to ensure sched­ule gains.

The deal, unan­i­mous­ly approved by the union nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee, ?“pre­serves our sub­con­tract­ing process, pro­tects senior­i­ty pro­vi­sions and calls for a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort to get back on sched­ule,” Local S6 leader Jay Wadleigh told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press Sat­ur­day. The agree­ment also includes health­care ben­e­fit gains.

“We are pleased to have reached agree­ment with our union part­ners and look for­ward to get­ting back to the job of build­ing ships for the U.S. Navy,” Phebe Novakovic, chair­man and CEO of Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, said in a state­ment the same day.

Local S6 mem­bers will vote to rat­i­fy the pro­posed con­tract online and via phone lat­er this month. If it’s approved?—?which both Cabral and Bam­ford believe is like­ly?—?the lack of con­ces­sions will stand in con­trast to the last con­tract. Back in 2015, work­ers nar­row­ly vot­ed to give up sched­uled rais­es in favor of one-time bonus­es to pro­tect jobs and help BIW win a new U.S. Coast Guard con­tract (though the com­pa­ny end­ed up los­ing that con­tract to a competitor). 

Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, one of the largest defense con­trac­tors in the coun­try, made $3.5 bil­lion in prof­its last year. In 2018, tax cuts backed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion helped cut the For­tune 500 company’s effec­tive tax rate almost in half, accord­ing to Labor Notes. That same year, the Maine leg­is­la­ture hand­ed BIW a $45 mil­lion tax break.

Bam­ford said he knows some peo­ple don’t agree with unions?—?but the strike has only deep­ened his pride in Local S6 and what it can achieve. The ten­ta­tive agree­ment, he said, sounds like a ?“big win.” 

“Until you’ve been a part of a union and you have 4,300 peo­ple stand­ing with you as one for one cause, it’s a feel­ing you can’t describe,” Bam­ford said. ?“It makes you proud to be with it.”

Cabral agrees: ?“Sol­i­dar­i­ty is awe­some. The strike has built camaraderie.”

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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The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

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After years of painstaking work by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to build support for a union at the big Nissan auto and truck assembly plant near Canton, Miss., the workers themselves will vote today and tomorrow on whether to accept UAW their collective bargaining voice at the plant.

“I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW president Dennis Williams told a press conference just days before the vote, “but we’re doing an ongoing evaluation. We’ve been thinking about it for six to seven months,” roughly since the UAW held a large march and rally at the factory attended by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is particularly concerned about a surge in the kind of unlawful management tactics to scare workers that brought charges against Nissan this week from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Canton factory is one of only three Nissan factories worldwide where workers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto “transplants,” or foreign-owned factories built with state subsidies for the past three decades, largely in the South and border states.

Many see the upcoming vote as another test of whether unions can thrive in the South, where union membership has historically been well below the national average. However, the battle is far greater. Now the corporate strategies and values of the South have persisted and influenced multinational companies, as well as labor relations and politics in the North. The Nissan campaign is best conceived as a battle for the U.S. labor movement.

Nissan has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Organizing the South

Organized labor, usually prodded by leftists in the movement, has undertaken high-profile campaigns in the South to organize unions across the racial divides. Such drives were especially prominent during the 1930s-era organizing upsurge and the post-World War II “Operation Dixie,” which lacked adequate support from existing unions and was plagued by internal political divisions.

The UAW has, at various times, escalated organizing in the South, especially when General Motors was considering relocating much production there in the 1960s—and when the transplant growth surged in recent decades.

Despite the shortcomings of labor’s campaigns, many union strategists think that unions can only reverse their decline by directly tackling the racist strategy of employers and their conservative political allies. But employers have many tools to divide workers, such as Nissan’s employment of temporary, contract workers to divide a predominately African-American workforce.

In recent years, the South has suffered key organizing blows, including the big defeat in January for the Machinists’ union trying to organize the new Boeing factory in Charleston, S.C., and the limited UAW success organizing a skilled trades union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. against a supposedly neutral employer. Such defeats typically inspire funereal chants for labor rights and unions, but sound like party music for managers and investors.

Yet, some organizers dispute that the South is impossible territory. One veteran organizer with the AFL-CIO, who has overseen many organizing drives in the South and asked not to be identified or directly quoted, said that he thought it was not significantly more difficult to organize in the South. It just took more time and more money.

The organizer cited one success that defied expectations: the campaigns over roughly 15 years to organize 26,000 workers and preserve business at Louisiana’s giant Avondale shipyards for a shifting cast of corporate owners doing repair and rebuilding work mainly on military contracts. Ultimately, a decline in military orders led its latest owner to close the shipyards, wiping out the organizing victory.

“The unions often do not realize it, but they have been winning in the South more than in the Midwest for years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor relations professor who specializes in research on union organizing. “Because [in the South] there are more women working, more African Americans, and because there’s less high-tech work.” Each of those categories of workers is more pro-union than their counterparts, thus building in a small theoretical advantage in the South.

The South’s poor labor standards are spreading

In the end, it may be that the poor labor standards of the South are spreading nationwide. The ascendant conservative political power of the new Republican Party, linked with the more aggressively anti-worker and anti-union policies of big corporations and financial firms, indicate that, in this country’s long Civil War, the South is gaining ground.

Consider what has occurred from 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads were on the horizon, as well as in 2016, when Donald Trump pledged to “make America great again.” Then and now, most people would consider Michigan and Wisconsin as typically northern, in terms of labor conditions and union density. Yet over that period, federal data shows that the percentage of all workers in Michigan who were covered by union contracts dropped from 32.8 percent in 1983 to 15.5 percent in 2016. For Wisconsin, the share dropped from 26.9 percent to 9.0 percent.

Unions are losing members and failing to gain new ones at an adequate rate to avoid the rough halving of the union share of the workforce over the past 15 years in most of both the South and the North.

Assault on workers knows no boundaries

It will be better for workers everywhere if the Canton, Miss., workers vote for the union, but management still has the upper hand. Workers are still weak and getting weaker nearly everywhere, with partial exceptions, like the Fight for 15 movement, which flourishes in nearly all of the country.

“Right to work” laws threaten unions nationwide, by prohibiting them from charging agency fees to workers who do not join the union but benefit from actions it takes. In recent years, the widespread passage of such laws outside of the South—now extending to half of all states—is a clear indication of the decline in union power.

Workers in Canton may win a union for a variety of reasons beyond the basic proposition that they need collective power to counter the power of their bosses. Or they may reject the union due to fear engendered by Nissan and its anti-union campaign, out of conservative political beliefs or for other reasons.

The best union organizers—and some very good organizers have played a major role at Nissan—understand how important it is to involve workers themselves as-organizers in reaching out to workers. In addition, organizers recognize it is vitally important to mobilize the progressive leaders and groups in the community for support, and employ a wide assortment of tactics to minimize the influence of the boss’s war on unions—a war conducted in large part on turf and terms favorable to the employer.

However, if the labor movement is striving to with significant gains for workers, it must create a progressive strategy for politics, workplace organizing and culture that focuses on the working class very broadly construed, including multiple levels of poverty, affluence and job histories. U.S. union organizing will need to strengthen and expand its community activities to develop a broader range of strategies to defeat racism. Within such a political context, union organizing might prosper—and workers might do so as well.

Whether the UAW does or does not win this summer, future successful organizing of workers in their communities and workplaces require an alternative political force that is more supportive and transformative.

 This piece was originally published at In These Times on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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