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Business and Economy

BIW Workers Protest, Fearing Job Changes, Outsourcing

Tom Porter
Workers protest outside Bath Iron Works Thursday.

BATH, Maine — Hundreds of shipyard workers took to the streets in Bath Thursday to protest changes being introduced by management at Bath Iron Works.

Union officials are worried that livelihoods could be threatened by the introduction of "cross-skill training" which would result in workers performing additional jobs.

The company, meanwhile, says the changes will improve efficiency and help BIW stay competitive.

"Go Home Fred" was the chant, as hundreds of shipyard marched in the shadow of Bath Iron Works Thursday morning.

They're referring to BIW President Fred Harris, whose proposed changes have angered many at the yard, best known for making destroyers for the U.S. Navy.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Jay Wadleigh

"He's been trying to make a lot of changes and some of them we don't feel are in the best interests of the membership of even of the cost of a ship," says Jay Wadleigh, president of local S6 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents more than half of BIW's nearly 6,000 employees.

Those changes, he says, will make it easier for the shipyard to outsource work. They will also require skilled workers to carry out extra tasks through the introduction of cross-skill training, also known as "associated functions" — a practice which sparked a 55-day strike when it was proposed back in 2000.

The workers have 12 months until their current contract expires, and addressing the crowd after the rally, Wadleigh says it's going to be a year of tough negotiating.

"The company needs to know that we, and I mean all of us, will accept nothing less than a fair contract," he says.

"We're just here to represent what we've fought so hard for," says shipfitter Mike Dumont, who says workers don't want to strike, but will if they have to. "We just want the company to understand that we know we need to make changes but the way he's going about his business right is just damaging, morale is low, productivity is down and it's not our doing."

Dumont says he has never seen morale as low as it is now.

Officials at Bath Iron Works — a unit of General Dymanics — were not available for comment Thursday. But they did issue a statement to employees ahead of the rally saying "BIW must work together as one yard to become more efficient, affordable and competitive in order to win future work and maintain current employment levels."

The company says if it doesn't win future work, such as the Coast Guard's Offshore Patrol Cutter Program, which is currently out to bid, more than a thousand jobs could be on the line.

Regarding the "associated functions" issue, BIW says it's only proposing that workers are trained in "minor tasks" to reduce the numerous hand-offs and the wait-time involved. One example: allowing welders to plug in their own machines and change their own grinding tips, rather than having to wait for another worker to do it for them.

Union leader Jay Wadleigh says this is misleading.

"They're asking for 108 tasks to be added to our normal job function list," he says. "That's not a few minor changes, that's wholesale changes."

Wadleigh says the changes being proposed are bigger than those that prompted the strike back in 2000.

This issue will be discussed next week at arbitration talks between union officials and BIW management.

Workers say they have their own ideas for cutting costs but that the company is not consulting them.