The outcomes of contract and strike votes on Sunday by the 4,600 members of Bath Iron Works’ largest union could determine how much business the U.S. Navy gives the shipyard going forward, an expert said.
The negotiating team for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6 over the weekend rejected a 217-page, “last, best and final offer” of a three-year contract with BIW. It includes a 3 percent annual raise for each of the three years, but increases insurance copays and asks for BIW alone to determine when it hires subcontractors.
The outcome of the vote could determine more than the immediate pay and benefits for members. It also could determine how the Navy awards future contracts to BIW. The shipyard, one of Maine’s largest private employers, has not had a strike since 2000. One would come amid the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.
The shipyard is about six months behind in producing DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class and DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers. While it is not unusual for shipyards to be somewhat late on such big projects, six months is about the limit at which the Navy could get concerned about the shipyard’s ability to produce ships at a steady pace.
A strike could add even more time to that, said Bryan Clark, a defense industry analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He said the Navy will want to keep BIW operating to be sure enough DDG-51s are built, but a strike would affect the yard’s production timeline and how the Navy calculates how many ships it will buy in the future.
“If they’re going to be less efficient and they’re going to have periodic strikes, then the Navy might feel it doesn’t need them to build as many ships,” he said. “And once you get about six months behind, that’s when people start noticing and it becomes a factor potentially in bid negotiations.”
In a message to union members accompanying the proposed contract, BIW President Dirk Lesko said he was troubled that the union and management were not able to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement successfully over the past three weeks.
“I am not in the habit of writing you at home. I am doing so now because you soon will have an opportunity to make an important decision — one that undoubtedly will impact the future of our shipyard,” he said.
Lesko said he remained optimistic about what the shipyard could accomplish if everyone works together, which he said “starts with regaining the confidence of our Navy customer.”
One of the hottest issues is the proposed use of more out-of-state contractors, which BIW parent General Dynamics sees as a way to catch up on work. Union members say this will potentially cause layoffs. BIW employs 6,800 workers.
The contract negotiations come on the heels of BIW losing the first round of a $795 million contract to build frigates. It is the first new major shipbuilding program in more than a decade, with construction starting in April 2022. Clark said that program could have filled the gap after BIW finishes its last Zumwalt destroyer this year. The shipyard could bid on future frigate programs.
Last Tuesday, the Navy awarded BIW nearly $43 million million more in contract modifications for previously awarded lead yard services for the DDG-51. Maine’s U.S. senators said the award showed the Navy’s confidence in BIW.
But union workers and the shipyard have been at odds for a while, including over work during the coronavirus crisis. In March, one day after a worker tested positive for the virus, fewer than half of the workers showed up, and the union pressed for a shipyard closure with paid time off. BIW declined, saying it had to fulfill its government contracts.
Hundreds of union members rallied Wednesday to seek a fair contract. The current four-year contract expires at midnight on June 21 and did not include pay raises. Eleven union representatives and 10 BIW representatives attended negotiations, which ran until last Saturday.
While the union typically holds in-person votes at the Cumberland County Civic Center, this year’s pandemic has forced a virtual vote starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday through noon on Sunday. Union members will cast votes by phone or email, said George Edwards, assistant directing business representative for District Lodge 4 of the Machinists Union.
The union will only see the vote results at noon on Sunday, after the union’s vendor hands them over, Edwards said. By mid-afternoon the union will announce the results on its Facebook page and by email, he said.
Union members will vote on whether or not to accept the contract and whether or not to strike. The contract will be accepted if 50 percent plus one person of the voters are for it. A strike requires a two-thirds vote, Local 6S spokesman Tim Suitter said.
A strike committee has been operating locally to set up job boards and to assure workers get some funds from the international arm of the union, Suitter said. If workers opt for a picket line, they will get $150 per week from the international union fund, he said. All union workers contribute to that fund in case of a strike.
But the union is willing to go back to the table to talk any time between now and midnight Sunday, Edwards said. At that time, if BIW doesn’t want to return to the bargaining table and the union votes that way, workers will strike, he said.
“Nobody wants a strike, especially in the times we are living in now,” Suitter added.