By LAURIE HAAPANEN
A strike at Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine by Local S6 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), which began on June 22 has ended. On Aug. 22, 87% of the strikers ratified a new contract. The workers had voted overwhelmingly to strike in June—87% of the membership. This overwhelming percentage of support both to strike and to stay out for two months sends a clear message of endorsement of the union leadership, the contract, and solidarity amongst a mixed-age workforce.
The strike—the largest in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic—became more contentious when Bath Iron Works President Dirk Lesko allowed scabs to enter the yard around the second week of the strike. Lesko is the son of a union-busting CEO who was instrumental in breaking the paperworkers’ union during a papermill strike in Jay, Maine, in 1987. The effects of that bitter strike are still felt today in that small town. However, at the shipyard, despite the presence of scabs and “super-scabs” (those local S6 workers who crossed the line), the strikers stayed loyal to each other.
Shipbuilders are a highly skilled workforce and there are set protocols for how ships are built there, with blueprints and rules for the sequence of work. The use of scabs was quite problematic for the company; a lot of mistakes were made, resulting in further delays in production.
In its “last best offer,” the company had proposed to completely eliminate seniority rights, to cut several union jobs through hiring subcontractors, and to present a wage package that would not begin to cover the increased costs of health insurance premiums. Picketing started on June 22, and no negotiating sessions were called.
A rally of about 300 strikers and supporters took place on July 25, where the IAM President, Robert Martinez spoke about asking President Trump and U.S. Senator Susan Collins to intervene in the strike. Shortly thereafter, two Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services mediators were appointed by Trump (Richard Giacolone and Commissioner Martin Callaghan) to attempt a settlement.
On Aug. 8, a communication from the union negotiating team was sent on social media to the Local S6 IAM membership announcing a settlement. In a memorandum to the membership, the union negotiating team reported: “An MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) was agreed to that allows for ‘a temporary catch-up phase through the end of the year, subcontracting will be phased out at the end of the year and we return to the prior language. There are no layoffs in 2020. There is a commitment to form a joint Union/Company Committee to help get Bath Iron Works back on schedule, secure our future and meet weekly to collectively move forward.”
The catch-up phase refers to the six months’ backlog in production. The compensation package is as originally proposed: 3% per year over the three-year agreement and a bonus payment of $1200 for ratifying the agreement. It was quite a stunning and unexpected settlement because the union was able to maintain current subcontracting language and hold onto basic seniority rights.
Several sources, including the Maine AFL-CIO, state that this was a victory to the union as they were able to defend their current contract language. “This strike was a testament to the culmination of Local S6 leadership, our negotiating committee and the incredible power of solidarity shown by our membership,” union President Chris Wiers said in a statement after the vote on Sunday. The workforce has a mix of younger, less senior workers and several nearing retirement age. The company believed it could drive a wedge between workers of diverse age groups, but they were demonstrably wrong.
Some workers interviewed were not happy with the economic package and were looking for more money to cover their increased health-insurance premiums. Strikers lost their health insurance about a week after the strike began—a risky business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, as the pandemic hit Maine, union leaders demanded that BIW close in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But BIW refused to close, because the Navy had deemed the shipyard workers as “essential employees.” As one veteran worker, who has been through three strikes, commented, “We were essential employees until June 21 of this year.”
There is speculation that the reason the strike succeeded is that the Navy was very concerned about the six months lag in production and pressured the company to get this highly skilled “essential” workforce back on the job. Since returning to work, strikers have been buoyed by the increased solidarity garnered from the picket line.