BATH, Maine — Negotiations between representatives of Bath Iron Works’ largest union and the shipyard’s management concluded Tuesday evening with a tentative four-year labor agreement, according to Jay Wadleigh, president of the union.
Wadleigh said Tuesday evening that he would brief the union’s approximately 3,000 members about details of the agreement on Wednesday. A membership meeting to vote to ratify the proposal is scheduled for Sunday at the Augusta Civic Center.
During a year in which the yard has experienced its most contentious labor relations in decades, negotiations for a new contract for Local S6 of the machinists union began in November, months before the current contract is due to expire, in order to allow the shipyard to bid for a new class of U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
Management and union leaders both have called the Coast Guard contract integral to the future of the shipyard and its workforce, which now numbers approximately 5,700.
But changes proposed by shipyard President Fred Harris to cut costs and bid competitively have prompted protests and lawsuits from the union. Some of the most vociferous union pushback has come in response to management’s proposal that union members be cross-trained and required to work outside their job classification at times when work flow on Navy destroyers dictates a shift in focus.
Harris, who assumed the helm at Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, in 2013 and continues to oversee the National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. in San Diego, has said the company must drastically reduce costs in order to bid competitively for the Coast Guard cutters, as well as another multiyear contract for destroyers, next year.
He has proposed outsourcing work as well as a cross-training policy known as “associated functions” that shipyard workers say failed when it was instituted in the late 1990s, and that was largely responsible for a 55-day strike in 2000.
Tensions grew this fall as design work continued on the Coast Guard cutters and moved forward on three DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (another four — possibly five — are under contract) and three DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers.
In October, management notified S6 leaders that because the company would bid on the Coast Guard cutters in 2016, it would invoke a clause in the existing contract that allows a contractual review to begin early.
Bath Iron Works will compete for the Coast Guard contract with Eastern Shipbuilding Group in Panama City, Florida, and Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, Louisiana. In late 2008, Bollinger edged out BIW in a competition for another Coast Guard contract worth up to $1.5 billion.
The current four-year labor contract provided for pay increases of 8.25 percent over four years, Wadleigh said in October, adding that he hoped the new proposal would include similar increases. Proposed changes to wages, benefits and working conditions were not available Tuesday night.
“If we’re going to be asked to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less people, there should be room for fair equity,” he said at the time.
Some union members have expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the contract negotiations privately to the Bangor Daily News. If a majority of union members reject the proposal presented to them on Sunday, union negotiators will have to return to management to attempt to work out new terms, a process that will darken the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the shipyard’s workforce and could complicate its competitive position in the Coast Guard bidding process.
“Ultimately the decision belongs to the members,” Wadleigh said Friday. “We can negotiate the best possible thing we can walking out of here — we might even hold our noses and say, ‘OK, we don’t like this’ — but the decision belongs to the members.”