Waving signs and chanting outside their union hall on Washington Street in Bath, members of Local S6 begin picketing Bath Iron Works shortly after 12:01 a.m. on Monday morning. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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BATH, Maine — Picketing workers at Bath Iron Works were undeterred on Monday as they entered the shipyard’s first strike in 20 years during the coronavirus pandemic, saying preserving seniority and other rights would be a worthwhile cause.

The virus provides a stark backdrop for the long-strained contract negotiations between the shipyard and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6, representing 4,400 workers in all 16 counties at one of the state’s largest private employers.

Local S6 voted overwhelmingly to strike on Sunday after rejecting a “last, best and final” three-year contract offer from BIW that included 3 percent annual raise, but increases insurance copays and would allow the shipyard to determine when it hires subcontractors and weaken some seniority provisions.

As the coronavirus threatens a potentially long recession in Maine and across the country, workers said on Monday that it hasn’t compromised their leverage. On Monday, strikers seemed happy to be in open air, collecting honks of approval from cars driving by.

Levi Benner, a shipfitter from Lisbon, held a printed list of career centers, job fairs and companies looking for help. He referenced the shipyard’s starting wage of just under $16 for laborers by saying “you can get that at Target.”

“Everybody’s hiring,” he said. “There’s no doubt any of these guys can go out and find a job at any time.”

For older workers, seniority provisions loomed large. The proposed contract would chip away longstanding employees’ rights to first preference for coveted shifts and jobs. It would also allow BIW to hire subcontractors whom the shipyard insists would help catch up on work as it is six months behind on seven destroyers at its docks.

The union sees it as a way to erode the organized workforce and avoid paying overtime to its workers. Joel Carter, who has been an electrical worker at Bath Iron Works for 32 years, does not buy the company line that subcontractors are necessary to boost production.

Bath Iron Works electrical workers Joel Carter, Justin Cones, Matt Winters, Josh Deschaine, and Dan Hodgkins stand on the picket line on Washington St. Monday afternoon. The workers said that losing seniority privileges and seeing ownership hire subcontractors to do their labor at cheaper rates are the major grievances behind the strike. Credit: Nick Schroeder / BDN

“If they’re behind, how come we’re not working overtime?” Carter said. “They’re dragging their feet and getting as much money as they can from the government.”

This would be Carter’s last year at Bath Iron Works. He said his financial situation is all set, but that he is invested in the future of younger workers, including a son and stepson who work at the yard.

With 87 percent of just over 3,700 voting members of the union backing the strike, workers said Monday that they are planning for the long haul. Justine Hill, a 60-year-old fitter from Waldoboro picketing outside a BIW parts facility in Brunswick, was struck by the number of younger workers who backed up the older ones in the strike vote.

“Us older people are fighting for the younger generation,” she said. “It’s not as attractive as it used to be. To them, $15 at McDonald’s looks pretty good compared with what you got to put up with here.”