BATH, Maine — Veteran Bath Iron Works shipbuilders said Wednesday that a recent multi-billion-dollar agreement between the shipyard and Navy will help secure the long-term viability of the company by supplying enough work to keep younger employees on the job.
With job security, younger shipyard workers can position themselves to assume responsibilities of workers likely to retire in the not-too-distant future.
Clint Downer, a union representative for Local S6 of the Machinists union and an electrician with 13 years experience at BIW, said the average age of a Bath shipbuilder is 52. More than 60 percent of the shipyard’s workers have been employed there for more than 20 years.
That places BIW within a dozen or so years of a mass retirement, he suggested. With the $3 billion or more now slated to flow to the shipyard for more work on the futuristic DDG-1000 program, there will be revenues and the work load necessary to support a new generation of machinists to replace the outgoing hard hats.
“This’ll help us bring in younger people,” agreed Kelly Ammons, another Local S6 union representative and electrician with 20 years experience at BIW. “We need to get new workers in here before we all retire.”
Talk about the future of the shipyard and their union membership took place outside Local S6’s Washington Street headquarters Wednesday following a visit by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Collins came to the union hall to celebrate a memorandum of agreement reached last week between BIW and the Navy on contract terms for the second and third ships in the DDG-1000 program.
Local S6 is the largest labor union at Bath Iron Works with more than 3,500 members. The shipyard employs approximately 5,700 people, and is the state’s largest single-site private employer.
“It’s great news not just for the shipbuilders, but the sandwich makers and the newspaper printers,” Downer told a reporter from The Times Record. “If this shipyard went out of business, what would be left here?”
Fellow Local S6 rep Paul Hastings said the contract agreement gave shipyard workers “a big sigh of relief.”
According to Collins, the shipbuilders’ concerns were not extreme. During her midday talk at the union hall Wednesday, the senator described how delays in the contract award pushed the lucrative destroyer program to the brink of elimination.
Collins said she brought BIW President Jeff Geiger, Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley and others to her office for a “pivotal” two-hour meeting on the impasse in late May.
“I said to both sides, ‘The stakes are too high,’” Collins told a crowd of shipbuilders and reporters Wednesday. “[I said], ‘If you don’t work something out, we risk losing that money for the shipyard forever, and that would translate into massive layoffs at Bath Iron Works and the Navy losing ships it desperately needs.”
The official contract for the two ships will likely be signed in mid-September, Collins said, but the memorandum allows the Navy to release funding to the shipyard so work can begin on the massive, state-of-the-art destroyers.
Many industry analysts felt the contract for the DDG-1001 and DDG-1002 should have been finalized as many as 18 months ago, but as Collins said Wednesday, negotiations between BIW and the Navy reached a perilous “stalemate.”
Collins said pressure mounted in recent months as debate in Washington intensified about raising the government’s debt ceiling, and lawmakers began rooting about for undesignated money they could cut from the federal budget.
“I was really worried,” she said Wednesday. “Any money that was not already obligated, under contract or otherwise nailed down was in jeopardy of being swept away in those debt ceiling negotiations.”
Collins told the Local S6 members in attendance that their efficiency and work quality on the deck plates made advocating for the shipyard in the Capitol “easy.” While she said BIW and Navy negotiators struggled to reach common ground on per unit ship costs — the destroyer program was reduced from seven to three ships in recent years, and the costs per vessel increased as a result — the quality of the Bath work force was never in question.
Bath Iron Works is already building the flagship DDG-1000, and had purchased some lead materials for the second and third ships with advance money forwarded by the Navy through modifications to that initial contract.
Collins told union members the memorandum of agreement is a “tribute to the outstanding, high quality work that you do.”
Jean Belanger, a shipfitter from Lisbon Falls with nine years experience at BIW, said the mood at the shipyard improved considerably since the agreement was announced last week.
“I got two [pink slips] last year because they didn’t have enough work to keep us busy,” he said. “People are a lot happier now because the jobs here are more secure.”
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