Union official: Bath Iron Works seeks electricians from San Diego yard as it scurries to hire more

Posted March 03, 2014, at 6:02 p.m.
Bath Iron Works President Frederick Harris
Bath Iron Works President Frederick Harris

BATH, Maine — A proposal by new Bath Iron Works President Frederick Harris to bring aboard electricians from another shipyard until BIW can train enough new hires has drawn the ire of union officials, who have negotiated an alternate plan.

According to Jay Wadleigh, president of Local S6 of the Machinists union, the largest union at BIW, the company plans to hire 30 electricians per month for the remainder of 2014 to keep up with new work.

Company officials declined on Monday to confirm how many electricians the company planned to hire, issuing only the following statement:

“We currently have a significant backlog of electrical work that must be completed as scheduled in order to support our Navy customer’s needs. To accomplish this, BIW will be building existing skills through training, adding new electricians to our workforce and implementing other initiatives as required to deliver the capability our customer requires.”

Bath Iron Works is currently hiring 36 electricians and 21 tinsmiths, among other positions, according to its website.

However, Wadleigh asserts that because the company did not anticipate being able to hire and train so many electricians in the time frame necessary to complete the work, Harris — who took the BIW helm in September while continuing as president of General Dynamics NASSCO, or National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, in San Diego — proposed bringing to BIW 30 NASSCO electricians from San Diego for 16 weeks, until BIW could train enough local workers to fill the jobs.

Wadleigh said the union strongly opposed the idea that workers from another shipyard would, even temporarily, fill jobs at the Bath shipyard.

“I’ve been here 20-something years and we’ve never had subcontractors come in and do our work,” he said.

After a week of negotiating, the union and management agreed that more than 200 current electricians at BIW would work six days per week, with eight hours on Saturdays, to make up those extra hours “and keep NASSCO and Electric Boatyard out of our yard,” Wadleigh said.

As long as union members fulfill that agreement, no outside electricians will perform BIW work, Wadleigh said.

“If for some reason we can’t live up to it, [the original proposal] is back on the table,” he said.

The union also contacted retirees, some of whom agreed to return for those 16 weeks, and found current employees who have changed trades, who will return as electricians during that time.

“We found bodies everywhere we could and cranked up the overtime,” Wadleigh said. “We just don’t want people from the outside into our yard for our core shipbuilding. This should help keep the jobs in Maine.”

In fact, jobs are on the rise at BIW: Wadleigh said every worker who lost his or her job during a series of layoffs in 2013 has been recalled or offered another job.

While employment is up at the yard, Wadleigh said Harris’ proposal has created “a general tentativeness” about the new president.

When General Dynamics announced in September that Harris would assume the helm of BIW in addition to NASSCO, former Local S6 President Dan Dowling said the change in management raised questions among union members, including how Harris “handles a bargaining unit in an organized workforce.”

“We’re kind of going into this saying, ‘We don’t know if you realize it, but we’re not used to people coming into our yard,’” Wadleigh said Monday. “This would not go over well.”

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