BATH — Bath Iron Works and its largest union have agreed to postpone contract negotiations for one month as the state continues to combat the spread of coronavirus. The union’s major concern is negotiating annual wage increases for its members.

Chris Wiers, president of Machinists Union Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, said if the union isn’t able to negotiate an annual wage increase, it opens the door for a potential strike.

“The union doesn’t want to strike,” said Wiers. “It doesn’t benefit anybody to strike, but if we’re not given wage increases, I don’t know what will happen. It depends on how the contract negotiations turn out.”

The union’s current contract prohibits a strike during negotiations.

The four-year contract between BIW, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, and Local S6 was due to expire on May 17 but it will now expire on June 21. BIW announced Wednesday all terms and conditions of the current contract will remain in effect during the extension.

In 2015, Local S6 negotiated an annual $2,500 lump sum bonus in lieu of an annual wage increase.

“Wages are the main thing,” he said. “People just hated those bonuses (in the current contract) because wages didn’t go up.”

Wiers said boosting wages would help both workers and the shipyard because higher wages draw higher skilled workers.

“If you want the best product, you have to be willing to pay for it,” Wiers said.

The starting hourly wage at BIW is $15.97, according to the acting contract. Maine’s minimum wage is $12.

At odds 

BIW and Local S6 have clashed in recent weeks, as union representatives have repeatedly called the shipyard to close and give workers on paid leave to prevent the spread of coronavirus within the shipyard and throughout the state.

Two BIW employees have tested positive for coronavirus as of Thursday.

The shipyard has allowed workers to take unpaid leave without losing their jobs, which many have accepted. Weirs said about 52% of Local S6 members have come into work this week.

“Over the last several weeks, BIW has seen a 25-30% decrease in attendance, as some workers are taking advantage of the company’s benefits, including paid vacation, paid sick leave and additional excused time off to address their personal and family needs during the pandemic,” according to a statement from the shipyard released this week.

While the relationship between the shipyard and union have been strained recently, Wiers said the agreement to extend the contract is amicable.

“Gov. Mills’ regulations and (the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s) recommendations put us in a difficult situation where we can’t gather to negotiate and vote, so we have to delay it,” said Wiers. “This is not a disagreement between BIW and the union.”

Union members typically meet at the Augusta Civic Center to vote on a new contract, which lasts for three or four years.

David Hench, BIW’s spokesman, said the extension “acknowledges the ongoing challenge related to COVID 19 (the disease caused by coronavirus) and the extensive efforts underway by BIW to keep its dedicated workforce safe and healthy while maintaining its critical infrastructure status as defined by DHS.”

Mills extended a state of civil emergency through May 15 earlier this week. The 30-day extension does not automatically lengthen the statewide stay-at-home order set to expire on April 30 but would allow the governor to extend it or impose new prohibitions should the virus continue to spread. Mills’ stay-at-home order, which prohibits Mainers from traveling outside their homes for all but “essential personal activities” such as grocery shopping, obtaining medical care or medication and exercising.

As of Thursday, 27 Maine residents have died from COVID-19 while 796 have tested positive for the disease, according to the Maine CDC.


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