BATH, Maine—On Monday, June 23, 2020, some 4300 production workers represented by the International Association of Machinists, Local S6, at the Bath Iron Works shipyard walked off the job due to stalled contract negotiations. BIW is owned by General Dynamics Corporation, the fifth-largest armaments contractor in the U.S., building nuclear submarines, ships, and military communications systems. General Dynamics made profits of $3.34 billion in 2018.
The union voiced resentment at the intransigence of BIW management and the Navy, given the profitability of the company. The union made a number of contract concessions to the company during their last negotiations. There hasn’t been a strike since 2000. However, wages and benefits have slowly eroded for the past 20 years.
The union stated in a letter to management that “it is unfortunate that BIW is not willing to review and revise its non-economic proposals. 87% of the voting membership made it clear that attacks on seniority and expansion of sub contract language are not acceptable or viable solutions to managerial shortcomings.” (Letter from Jay Wadleigh, IAM Business Representative, not dated but responding to a manager, source from Local S6 FB page.)
On June 26, Socialist Resurgence interviewed a shipyard worker and BIW striker. He is also active in recent Black Lives Matter protests. At the striker’s request, we are omitting his name for security reasons.
Socialist Resurgence: How long have you worked at Bath Iron Works?
I’ve been a General Laborer at Bath Iron Works since October 2019. My roommate also works there and is a second-shift electrician. Overwhelmingly, most people don’t even understand what a union is because most are non-union. You have to work at BIW if you want to work in a union shop in Maine. There’s lots of animosity towards unionization in Maine.
I used to work in a Bath restaurant. I remember that one extremely busy workday, one of the managers said, “Come on people, let’s move it. You’re not working fast enough.” Well, I said, “I’m going to work like I’m making $12 an hour, not $20 an hour. I don’t mind working hard, but I want to be paid a decent wage.” When the boss learned that I was leaving to go work at BIW, they raised my pay to $14. But I know I’ll do better working in a union shop.
SR: Tell us what the company’s last offer was and why did Local S6 vote to strike?
We got a packet of info on the contract offer. Basically, BIW said they would give us a signing bonus of about $600 plus a 3% raise. And they said it was fair. But our health insurance is increasing by 11%. A 3% raise won’t cover that increase. I started at $15.97 on the day shift.
SR: What are the issues which caused the workers to strike?
They want to completely remove seniority; their proposal is to get rid of all seniority rights. Layoffs would be done without considering seniority. Older workers can’t do some physical jobs anymore. Management says, “do it or get laid off.” If it’s a safety issue, okay you can refuse. But if I have a personal physical problem, I still have to do it. They will record our start date but do away with our seniority date. It’s really a provocative proposal. The workers won’t agree to that!
One of the biggest issues is subcontracting. BIW says that they are behind in production. They appear to be more worried about China because they are working on their navy. Bath Iron Works builds one to 1 ½ ships per year. They want up to two per year. Hiring a bunch of people to subcontract and paying them far less than what we earn is their answer. The U.S. Navy wants to be ahead of the rest of the world.
And I mentioned that the health insurance costs are going up by 11%. So we really were forced to strike or we won’t have a union to protect us.
SR: What are the working conditions like in the yard?
I’ve only been there since October, so I can only speak to what I’ve seen since then. My orientation was kind of lame—one week orientation without tools, one week with tools. I learned how to use one tool, a grinder that I would actually use on the job. All I really had was a week of tack welding, plasma cutting, cold cutting—which was basically a generalized training for all jobs. I had to learn how to mix industrial paint on the job. Other tools I had to learn on the job.
My first actual workday on site, they gave me the name of my supervisor and what building to report to. No one knew who that supervisor was! The BIW workplace is very disorganized. It’s amazing we get any ships built. Overmanagement! And managers aren’t trained well either. BIW should prioritize and put money into training. Certain trades get longer training.
SR: You were still working during the pandemic. How has COVID-19 affected your employment?
BIW offered us a month of unpaid leave. You could also file for unemployment. BIW did not pay anyone to be on leave. That was all optional. The majority of the yard did go on leave. Masks were and are optional now. Most people do not wear them—they are not part of PPE requirements.
One or two people who got COVID were not actual BIW workers—they were vendors who fill machines. There have been about four cases since the pandemic started in March. The yard does try to practice social distancing. In general, not much has changed in my worklife. They do have a sanitizing crew. I was part of COVID cleanup; sanitize railings, etc. But they did not give me hazard pay. They did offer other trades cleaning work at $2 per hour more. But I wasn’t offered that.
SR: As an anti-racist activist, how do you see what unions could do to get involved in this struggle?
I haven’t seen our union say much at all. I have seen signs of Solidarity with BLM around the yard. These are race and class-struggle issues that workers need to recognize. But there aren’t a lot of people of color at BIW or even in Maine. Less than 2% of people in Maine are of color.
History will repeat itself until the workers realize it’s a class issue. My general feeling about the strike is that I think it’s needed, but the problems leading to the strike are going to keep occurring unless we change stuff. BIW wouldn’t be trying to screw workers if we really stood up for ourselves. They are richer than us. We should strike until we get a fair contract, not just a better one.
Photo: Robert F. Bukaty / AP