Biden backs strikers at Bath Iron Works
Shipbuilders picket outside an entrance to Bath Iron Works, in Bath, Maine. | AP

BATH, Maine—Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and a parade of other prominent politicians are supporting the 4,300 Machinists Local S6 workers forced to strike by their bosses at the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine.

“A job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about dignity. I urge Bath Iron Works to come back to the table and make a fair offer to the hardworking men and women of IAM Local S6,”  Biden declared on June 25.

The former vice president thus joins Maine’s entire congressional delegation and top state officials in urging the shipyard’s president, and his corporate chieftains at General Dynamics, to bargain in good faith and reach a contract with the local, which represents 64% of all the yard’s workers.

The Maine AFL-CIO is also circulating an on-line petition to Lesko, demanding he bargain in good faith and reach a contract with the workers. Supporters can sign it at https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/support-a-fair-contract-for-biw-shipbuilders.

Company demands for extensive out-of-state subcontracting of their work to the lowest bidders, unlimited shift changes that would destroy seniority, and health care cost hikes that would wipe out proposed 3% annual raises, forced the workers to walk at 12:01 am on June 21.

The S6 members first rejected the company’s “last, best and final” offer by an overwhelming margin. Then 84% of those voting OKed the strike.

Relations between the union and company management are so bad that even two probationary workers, who had started their jobs only on June 15, and who could not vote, tweeted that they were proud of their colleagues. It’s the local’s first strike at the yard in 20 years.

The BIW workers, all skilled machinists, are building seven destroyers for the U.S. Navy. A spokesman for the yard’s parent firm, General Dynamics, said it “was prepared” to keep construction going, though it didn’t say how. A Navy spokesman e-mailed a defense-oriented paper the service hopes the two sides settle their differences peacefully.

Postings from Local S6 leaders on their Facebook page reveal company intransigence. The rejected pact was for three years. And IAM President Bob Martinez backed them up in a strong letter to Bath Iron Works’s CEO, Dirk Lesko, and a public statement.

“Don’t Buy The Company’s Lies and Spin,” one Local S6 Facebook posting was headlined, covering BIW’s health care proposals.

“Average premium costs from 2017 to 2020 only went up by a total of 8.4% for BIW yet they want a 5% annual increase in premiums (15% total) plus higher out-of-pocket costs. There is no justification for higher out-of-pocket costs.”

“BIW is just trying to push everyone into the high deductible plan. The increases in prescription drug copays, deductibles and annual maximums…will hurt those that need to use their health care the most, many of whom have sacrificed their health by working in the physically demanding jobs in a shipyard or have complications related to a pregnancy.”

Left unsaid in that posting is the BIW members are “essential” workers forced to toil through the coronavirus pandemic, often in close quarters without social distancing. Martinez made that point.

“This strike is about more than wages and benefits,” he said. “It is about working people having a voice in their futures and taking a stand for their families and the state of Maine.”

“Despite our repeated warnings to the management of Bath Iron Works, this employer has continued to take taxpayer dollars and outsource good Maine jobs to out-of-state contractors.”

“The company is engaged in flat-out union-busting, and is exploiting the current pandemic to attempt to outsource work from its dedicated employees, who are risking their health to build ships that protect our national security.”

“For generations, our members at Local S6 in Bath proudly built the military ships that keep our servicemen and women safe. They are the reason why ‘Bath Built is Best Built.’ We simply ask management recognize the sacrifices our members have made, and work with us to find a solution that promotes the well-being of our membership, their families and the entire state of Maine.”

The Maine AFL-CIO threw its weight behind Local S6, too. The strike vote “should send a crystal clear message to BIW management: Respect your workers, go back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract,” state fed President Cynthia Phinney tweeted.

“The union has struggled and bargained over decades to make these safe, quality jobs that Maine workers can survive in over a long career and earn a decent living. BIW proposals roll back job quality, worker protections and safety,” she added. “All over this state and country the essential people are rising up to demand respect, justice and a fair share of the wealth we create. The broader labor movement stands with the workers at BIW in their struggle for a fair contract.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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