Maine’s martial maritime history is deep. One of the first naval engagements of the Revolutionary War — the Battle of Machias — was launched by Maine Patriots. When World War II was ravaging the world, Maine shipbuilders were constructing entire vessels in fewer than five days.
That tradition lives on with Bath Iron Works. Hopefully, it will continue to do so for many years to come.
The ongoing labor dispute between the company and its machinists’ union has spilled out into the public. BIW sent its “ last, best, and final” offer to labor leadership on June 13. The union voted against it, instead striking for the first time in 20 years. The situation is ongoing.
Which brings us back to the Bonhomme Richard. Maine’s francophone population — the largest in the country per capita — will know its English translation is “good man Richard.” History buffs will know it as the flagship of John Paul Jones, founder of the United States Navy, who named it after Ben Franklin’s literary alias: Poor Richard.
The warship was famously lost in a victorious battle. Jones and his crew captured the British Serapis and sailed their prize to the Netherlands. Their daring and audacity was a seminal moment in the revolution, giving France more confidence in supporting the upstart Patriots.
In modern times, new American warships have carried the storied name. Like the amphibious assault ship which caught headlines — and fire — last week.
By all accounts, the present Bonhomme Richard will be out of action for years. It could be permanent. That has a very real impact on the Navy founded by John Paul Jones and, by extension, the nation it defends.
This week saw accusations against China for hacking coronavirus research. They continue to illegally build islands in international waters and impose themselves on other nations. Standing fast against these efforts is the United States Navy. Periodically, American forces conduct “freedom of navigation operations” to categorically deny Chinese claims on international waters.
Everyone hopes those operations can remain peaceful in perpetuity. But si vis pacem, para bellum: if you want peace, prepare for war.
That’s where BIW comes in.
If (non-nuclear) war ever occurred with China, one of America’s greatest strengths is her geographic diversity. The shipyards of the People’s Liberation Army Navy are along the Pacific coastline; we are bicoastal. A Pacific war would be tragic and highly destructive to our industrial maritime infrastructure, but it would be catastrophic for China.
Maine’s shipbuilders would be able to continue their efforts, channeling the spirit of their Liberty shipwright predecessors. Ultimately, American would prevail.
Yet, in the meantime, in a world without a shooting war, China’s industrial output likely outpaces our own. Rebalancing that reality will take significant effort from the Navy and its private partners — both companies and unions.
The nitty-gritty of contract negotiation is for BIW and its unions to work through. But it must occur from a position of mutual respect and shared objectives. The Machinists union is hopefully moving in that direction, having removed from its website some not-so-veiled death threats against those who wish to return to work.
Washington is going to have some very difficult decisions to make in the years ahead surrounding the Navy. The Bonhomme Richard is a significant loss. China continues to grow as a competitor. And some would-be elected officials — like Green Independent candidate Lisa Savage — would see BIW abandon its shipbuilding mission.
But John Paul Jones’ exploits on the Bonhomme Richard helped us win our independence. Our maritime industrial might let us beat back Imperial Japanese aggression. And a strong navy with advanced ships will be critical in the years ahead to protecting international commerce in places like the South China Sea.
“Bath built is best built” is BIW’s famous motto. Hopefully the company and the union will work through things to ensure that rings true for many years yet to come.
Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan and in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine. He was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage. His views are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy.