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Hundreds Of BIW Workers Rally Outside Shipyard As Strike Looms

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Union members at Bath Iron Works rally outside the shipyard Wednesday amid ongoing contract negotiations.

Hundreds of workers rallied outside of Bath Iron Works (BIW) Wednesday morning as the shipyard and its largest union continue to negotiate a new contract.

Many workers said they are upset by recent proposals from management that they say could affect hundreds of longtime employees, and union leaders say they are prepared to strike if changes are not made.

Richard Buzzell remembers the last strike at Bath Iron Works, 20 years ago. It lasted for 55 days. Buzzell, who has been at the company for more than three decades, says it could happen again, based on what he has heard about current contract negotiations between the company and Local S6, the largest union at the shipyard.

“They can't try to shove all of this down our throat and think we're not going to do it because of the way the economy is and COVID-19,” Buzzell says. “I hope they're wrong. Because as far as I'm concerned, if they give us that kind of proposal, I'm not going to have any choice but to vote for a strike.”

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Rallying union workers stretch down the street outside the Bath Iron Works shipyard Wednesday morning, amid contentious contract negotiations.

Wednesday morning, Buzzell was one of hundreds of workers who rallied outside of the shipyard, many holding signs that read "no more concessions" and "respect your workers." The rally comes as a deadline fast approaches for the two sides to reach a contract agreement.

Local S6 President Chris Wiers says at issue are proposals that he says could potentially threaten certain seniority rights for longtime workers, such as having priority status in determining where and when they work.

“That's going to potentially drive a lot of these 30-year guys out,” Wiers says. “We have over 1,200 with 30 years or more experience. And they have the option, with 30 and out, with a pension, to leave. A lot of them have already elected to do so. And we feel that if this contract gets ratified, with even remotely some of the language that's in it, it's going to drive them out.”

And some workers, including Mike Talbert, say they are concerned about proposals to continue using subcontractors from out-of-state for certain jobs at the shipyard.

"Keep these ships built by Maine people. That's the biggest thing right there," Talbert says.

In a statement, BIW parent says that it continues to be committed to the union and its own employees, and says that much of the contract work is focused on "one-off construction projects" in facilities and capital work. The company adds that it, "understands and respects the importance of seniority" and that seniority "is still preserved for the most important work-related events."

The company also says that its contract proposal offers annual wage increases and continued retirement and pension plans, and notes that BIW jobs, "already pay on average 22 percent more than other manufacturing jobs in the state."

The company’s statement reads: "The company believes common sense changes to existing processes will ensure it can complete its work and win new contracts, while still respecting the needs of our employees. Added elements like guaranteed wage increases and market leading benefits will continue to make good Bath Iron Works jobs even better."

But Wiers says the union is prepared to strike if the company refuses to back away from the changes.

“With proposals like this that the company's put out, it's inevitable. It really looks like they're going to put this membership on strike with these proposals. So I believe this is going to be the first of many times you'll see us on the sidewalks."

Contract negotiations are tentatively scheduled to end Friday, and the current union contract is set to expire on June 21.

Updated 3:34 p.m. June 10, 2020 - this piece was updated to show that the statement issued was from BIW, not General Dynamics.

Originally published June 10, 2020 at 8:25 a.m. ET.