It was a day of firsts at Bath Iron Works, where members of all four unions opted to give their collective endorsement to a single candidate. And bucking a long-time tradition at the shipbuilding facility, Thursday also marked the first time that the unions chose to support a Republican over a Democrat.
Only two weeks ago, union workers at Bath Iron Works stood by proudly as the product of five years work, the USS Zumwalt destroyer, glided into the Kennebec River. All four unions, representing more than 4,000 shipbuilders, draftsmen and designers, made headlines again today by endorsing Republican Sen. Susan Collins.
"Having the endorsement of these four unions at this terrific shipyard representing the best employees in the world, means so much to me," Collins said.
Six years ago, when Collins faced a liberal Democratic challenger in former Congressman Tom Allen, BIW's largest union threw its support behind the Democrat. Collins won the election, to a third term, and says she made a point of returning to the shipyard the next day to make a personal commitment to the workers she met at the gate.
"That was the last event of the 2008 campaign, and how thrilled I am today that our first major announcement of the 2014 campaign is right here back at this yard, and from the great men and women who work here," Collins said.
Union leaders say they are grateful for Collins' efforts in her role as a senior member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. In fact, Local S6 International Association of Machinists President Jay Wadleigh says Collins works as hard in Washington as any of the shipbuilders at BIW.
"She cares about this yard, and more importantly, she cares about the men and women who work here," Wadleigh said. "She's affectionately called this place her yard - I've heard that from the CEO in there. And we say right back at you: You're our senator."
Collins Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows, never got the chance to campaign for the support of BIW workers. Wadleigh confirmed that his union decided to support Collins before Bellows declared her candidacy last October.
Bellows says while she would have liked to have the shipbuilders' endorsement, it won't have an impact on the breadth and depth of support she enjoys from organized labor.
"We have received twice as many union endorsements, including some of the state's largest unions, like Teamsters Local 340 and the IBEW electrical workers unions," said Bellows. "We've received the unanimous endorsement of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council. Working class folks across the state are lining up behind my campaign because we need an ally in Congress, a senator who will fight for their jobs and their interests."
Bellows is an outspoken advocate for diversification at BIW beyond the military sector, saying that even as the yard's parent company, General Dynamics, enjoys record profits, employment opportunities there continue to decline.
"The shipyard has lost over 2,000 jobs in the last 18 years that my opponent, Republican Susan Collins, has been in office," Bellows said.
Collins says that despite some criticisms over the high production costs of the Zumwalt class destroyers, its capabilities place it in a class by itself and that BIW's future is clearly linked to the future of our national defense.
"I was very encouraged when the secretary of the Navy was here recently for the christening of the Zumwalt, that he said we need more ships - we need more ships to meet our military requirements and for the security of our country," Collins said.
Collins, who helped Maine get the $3.3 billion for the Zumwalt, says BIW is under contract to build two more of the destroyers.