After nearly seven weeks on the picket line, Machinists union members will soon vote on a contract that includes everything theyâ€™re fighting for.
BATH, MAINE â€” Itâ€™s no coinÂciÂdence that the first strike in 20 years at Bath Iron Works (BIW) began months into the Covid-19 panÂdemÂic. While Maine has one of the lowÂest Covid transÂmisÂsion rates in the counÂtry, the spread of the deadÂly virus helped spark the strike that has largeÂly shut down the shipÂyard at BIW â€” one of Maineâ€™s largest employers.
In June, when around 4,300 MachinÂists Local S6 union memÂbers at BIW votÂed overÂwhelmÂingÂly to strike, many had already soured on manÂageÂment over its hanÂdling of the pandemic.
The walkÂout?â€”?which repÂreÂsents the largest priÂvate-secÂtor strike of the year?â€”?has lastÂed for nearÂly sevÂen weeks. But late last week, both sides saw a breakÂthrough as a tenÂtaÂtive agreeÂment was reached that appears to hand the union a vicÂtoÂry on its demands.
BIW, a GenÂerÂal DynamÂics subÂsidiary that builds batÂtleÂships for the U.S. Navy, nevÂer shut down the proÂducÂtion facilÂiÂty because it was deemed an ?â€śessenÂtial busiÂnessâ€ť by the U.S. govÂernÂment. After a BIW workÂer testÂed posÂiÂtive for the virus in late March, the comÂpaÂny encourÂaged employÂees not to report to work. Many did stay home for weeks?â€”?but they had to use paid vacaÂtion or sick time, or work unpaid. Union leadÂers called for a shutÂdown with pay while also pushÂing state lawÂmakÂers to presÂsure the Navy to allow the shipÂyard to close.
â€śThey said weâ€™re essenÂtial workÂers because we build batÂtleÂships, but how essenÂtial are you if you get sick? Itâ€™s scary for a lot of peoÂple,â€ť said John Louis Cabral III, a shipÂyard workÂer and Local S6 member.
Cabral, 34, couldnâ€™t afford to stay home long: He was hired last year and had litÂtle accrued paid time off. With three kids to supÂport and no access to panÂdemÂic-relatÂed unemÂployÂment benÂeÂfits since he wasnâ€™t furÂloughed, he went back to the yard.
With employÂee attenÂdance way below norÂmal for weeks, BIW fell furÂther behind on proÂducÂtion of Navy guidÂed-misÂsile destroyÂers. As part of negoÂtiÂaÂtions with Local S6 for a new three-year conÂtract, the comÂpaÂny proÂposed changes allowÂing it to hire nonunion subÂconÂtracÂtors more quickÂly. That and othÂer proÂposed changes to seniorÂiÂty and work rules in the companyâ€™s ?â€ślast, best, and final offerâ€ť on June 13 did not go over well with Local S6.
â€śItâ€™s a powÂer strugÂgle in the yard right now, and thatâ€™s facts,â€ť said Cabral, who helps manÂage invenÂtoÂry at the shipyard.
On June 22, 87% of Local S6 memÂbers votÂed in favor of strikÂing, even though theyâ€™d lose comÂpaÂny-paid health insurÂance durÂing a panÂdemÂic. FedÂerÂal mediÂaÂtors were brought in to restart negoÂtiÂaÂtions in July, around the same time BIW laid off memÂbers of anothÂer union local and brought in subÂconÂtracÂtors from out of state to avoid falling furÂther behind on production.
â€śWeâ€™re all standÂing as one because we donâ€™t want subÂconÂtractÂing in here,â€ť Chad BamÂford, a 25-year-old crane rigÂger whoâ€™s worked at BIW since 2017, said on the pickÂet line FriÂday. ?â€śTheyâ€™re tryÂing to subÂconÂtract out our work. We donâ€™t want outÂsiders. Give us more overÂtime. We build the best ships in the world.â€ť
The comÂpaÂny has said it nevÂer wantÂed to perÂmaÂnentÂly outÂsource work away from the union through subÂconÂtracÂtors. ?â€śWe seek only effiÂcient access to all availÂable resources to improve our abilÂiÂty to delivÂer to the US Navy on time,â€ť BIW PresÂiÂdent Dirk Lesko wrote
in June. The shipÂyard was six months behind schedÂule at the start of the strike.
Both BamÂford and Cabral blame proÂducÂtion delays on both the panÂdemÂic and misÂmanÂageÂment. A BIW spokesperÂson did not respond to a request for comment.
Union vicÂtoÂry inÂ hand?
After weeks of meetÂings that yieldÂed litÂtle, union and BIW negoÂtiaÂtors broke through to an agreeÂment FriÂday, and it looks like the union got everyÂthing it wanted.
In a tenÂtaÂtive agreeÂment announced SatÂurÂday, Local S6 leadÂers trumÂpetÂed the retenÂtion of staÂtus quo conÂtract lanÂguage on subÂconÂtracÂtors and seniorÂiÂty and work rules. The agreeÂment also retains 3% annuÂal raisÂes for workÂers. A ?â€śtemÂpoÂrary catchup phaseâ€ť will allow expandÂed subÂconÂtractÂing through the end of this year, and a joint union-comÂpaÂny comÂmitÂtee will begin meetÂing weekÂly to ensure schedÂule gains.
The deal, unanÂiÂmousÂly approved by the union negoÂtiÂatÂing comÂmitÂtee, ?â€śpreÂserves our subÂconÂtractÂing process, proÂtects seniorÂiÂty proÂviÂsions and calls for a colÂlabÂoÂraÂtive effort to get back on schedÂule,â€ť Local S6 leader Jay Wadleigh told the AssoÂciÂatÂed Press SatÂurÂday. The agreeÂment also includes healthÂcare benÂeÂfit gains.
â€śWe are pleased to have reached agreeÂment with our union partÂners and look forÂward to getÂting back to the job of buildÂing ships for the U.S. Navy,â€ť Phebe Novakovic, chairÂman and CEO of GenÂerÂal DynamÂics, said inÂ aÂ stateÂment the sameÂ day.
Local S6 memÂbers will vote to ratÂiÂfy the proÂposed conÂtract online and via phone latÂer this month. If itâ€™s approved?â€”?which both Cabral and BamÂford believe is likeÂly?â€”?the lack of conÂcesÂsions will stand in conÂtrast to the last conÂtract. Back in 2015, workÂers narÂrowÂly votÂed to give up schedÂuled raisÂes in favor of one-time bonusÂes to proÂtect jobs and help BIW win a new U.S. Coast Guard conÂtract (though the comÂpaÂny endÂed up losÂing that conÂtract to a competitor).
GenÂerÂal DynamÂics, one of the largest defense conÂtracÂtors in the counÂtry, made $3.5 bilÂlion in profÂits last year. In 2018, tax cuts backed by the Trump adminÂisÂtraÂtion helped cut the ForÂtune 500 companyâ€™s effecÂtive tax rate almost in half, accordÂing to Labor Notes. That same year, the Maine legÂisÂlaÂture handÂed BIW a $45 milÂlion tax break.
BamÂford said he knows some peoÂple donâ€™t agree with unions?â€”?but the strike has only deepÂened his pride in Local S6 and what it can achieve. The tenÂtaÂtive agreeÂment, he said, sounds like a ?â€śbig win.â€ť
â€śUntil youâ€™ve been a part of a union and you have 4,300 peoÂple standÂing with you as one for one cause, itâ€™s a feelÂing you canâ€™t describe,â€ť BamÂford said. ?â€śIt makes you proud to be with it.â€ť
Cabral agrees:Â ?â€śSolÂiÂdarÂiÂty is aweÂsome. The strike has builtÂ camaraderie.â€ť
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is aÂ conÂtributÂing ediÂtor at the magÂaÂzine. He is the ediÂtor ofÂ The Age of InequalÂiÂty: CorÂpoÂrate Americaâ€™s War on WorkÂing PeoÂpleÂ (2017, VerÂso), and was the Web/?Associate EdiÂtor ofÂ In These TimesÂ fromÂ 2008Â toÂ 2012.