Members of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of BIW’s 6,700 employees, march on strike Monday morning in Bath. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BATH — More than 100 members of Bath Iron Works’ largest union picketed outside the shipyard Monday after a strike launched at 12:01 a.m., following weeks of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the company and the union.

At issue are proposals involving the hiring of subcontractors and changes to seniority at a time when shipyard production has fallen six months behind schedule.

Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the company’s 6,700 employees, rejected a three-year contract proposal over the weekend. Of the 3,712 workers who cast ballots, 3,242 (an overwhelming 87 percent) voted to strike, according to Andy O’Brien, Maine AFL-CIO communications director. Voting, held online and over phones throughout the weekend, wrapped up at noon Sunday.

In the proposed contract, BIW wrote it wants to the right to hire subcontractors “to overcome manning shortages, lack of equipment, or facilities,” but agreed it will not use subcontractors “to avoid hiring employees … or to overcome a manning shortage if there are involuntary layoffs in the relevant trade.”

Tim Suitter, Local S6 spokesman, said the company wants to be able to hire subcontractors “without justifying its reasons to the union,” as it does now, giving union officials little ability to monitor the use of subcontractors.

Chris Wiers, Local S6 president, said contract negotiations can only resume after the company contacts Local S6. Until that happens, the strike will continue. As of Morning morning, BIW had not contacted the union, Wiers said.

In a statement issued after results were announced, BIW officials said they were “disappointed by this result, but are prepared should a strike occur.”

“At this time, the company is focused on activating its business continuity plan,” BIW spokesman David Hench wrote Monday. “In the near-term, this includes continued shipyard production with salaried personnel and others reporting to work. The company and the union have not discussed returning to the bargaining table, and there currently is no timeframe for doing so.”

This is the first strike since 2000, which lasted 55 days.

Members of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of BWI’s 6,700 employees, form a picket line at the South Gate on Monday morning in Bath. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In a written statement Monday, Gov. Janet Mills urged both BIW and Local S6 to “return to the negotiating table, resolve their differences, and reach an agreement, as difficult as that is.”

“Bath Iron Works is one of the largest employers in Maine, providing thousands of jobs to hardworking people and making it a vital pillar of our economy,” Mills wrote. “[Reaching an agreement] will ensure the stability of the shipyard’s operations in the short-and long-term, support its talented workforce and their livelihoods, and maintain its place as an economic driver for the state.”

Senate President Troy Jackson wrote Monday he stands in solidarity with Local S6 members as they strike for fair wages and policies.

“The hardworking men and women at BIW are only asking to be paid fairly for the work that they do,” Jackson wrote. “Right now, BIW is spending more money, taxpayer dollars I might add, to hire out-of-state workers to avoid paying their employees a decent wage.”

Production of BIW’s Arleigh Burke-class of guided-missile warships was already running six months behind prior to the strike.

“It makes sense for the union to get the best contract it can,” industry analyst Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said in an interview Sunday evening. “But the reality is BIW needs to stay competitive to win future Navy contracts. If costs run too high, the Navy will buy their ships elsewhere.”

Both analysts and union members considered how a strike would impact BIW’s future standing within the shipbuilding industry.

Wiers said Sunday that voting members were standing up for good jobs for the Maine economy.

“We are proud to build the best ships in the world and we want to keep it that way,” Wiers said in a statement. “We are fighting for good jobs for the Maine economy. We want jobs at the shipyard to be high-quality jobs that members can earn a decent living in over a long career.”

BIW, a subsidiary of global aerospace and defense company General Dynamics, pitched a three-year contract including annual 3% pay increases, maintaining current premiums on benefits including 401(k) and life insurance, but increasing health plan co-pays.

Members of the Local S6 negotiating committee walked down Washington Street in Bath on Monday morning to begin picket lines at the north and south entrances of the shipyard while union members cheered and chanted “Local 6.” The Times Record / Kathleen O’Brien

David Green, a BIW employee of 27 years, said the increase in health insurance co-pays alone is unacceptable.

“My wife has cancer and I bring her to her doctor’s appointments in Boston frequently,” he said. “Under the new contract, we’d go from paying $125 out-of-pocket to $300 for each doctor’s visit.”

Several workers said the company has created its own problems by offering low wages that qualified machinists don’t deserve and won’t accept.

“Veterans and college-educated workers with prior experience can’t take jobs here because they’re overqualified but the company offers them Grade 1 (or entry-level) pay,” said Green.

The starting hourly wage at BIW is $15.97, according to the last contract between BIW and Local S6, which expired Monday morning at 12:01 a.m. Maine’s minimum hourly wage is $12.

BIW demanded more freedom to hire subcontractors during when negotiating its last contract five years ago, which the union because it could allow the shipyard to remain flexible while vying to win a $10.5 billion contract to build Coast Guard cutters. The shipyard warned that losing out on the contract could lead to the elimination of 1,000 jobs. BIW ultimately lost the cutter contract.

Jeff Segars, a BIW tinsmith of 38 years, said he lost his trust in the company following the 2015 contract negotiations because it never laid off 1,000 workers after losing the cutter contract and instead began a hiring push. Last year BIW hired 1,000 new workers and plans to match that number this year, according to Hench.

Segars said he doesn’t trust the company won’t replace longtime workers with cheaper subcontractors. He said he’d vote to approve a contract if BIW “fixed the language” regarding subcontracting and seniority.

“Most everyone is out here because of the language on the contract rather than the economics,” said Segars. “Of course you always want better wages, but most of us fear we’re going to lose out jobs to out-of-state contractors.”

Stephen Steward, a BIW employee of 33 years, said tensions between the shipyard and the union have been mounting since the last contract negotiations in 2015 when union members agreed to accept a $2,500 yearly lump sum bonus rather than an annual pay increase. However, union members aren’t willing to settle for a wage increase alone.

“If I approved this contract, my entire department would be subcontracted out within three years,” he said. “Raises in the short-term don’t mean anything if we’re committing occupational suicide for our members.”

In the week after BIW presented its offer for a new contract, negotiations hit an impasse. Prior to the polls opening over the weekend, both union and company leaders said they were willing to continue contract negotiations, but neither party approached the other to make that happen. Both sides issued statements saying they’d be willing to continue contract talks to stave off a strike, but that apparently didn’t happen.

On Monday, cars passing on Washington Street, where BIW’s main facility is located, honked in solidarity as workers rang bells and banged on metal. Most workers were gathered at the Local S6 union hall, across the street from the shipyard.

While raucous, this morning’s demonstrations have been peaceful. Police were stationed up and down Washington Street.

“Other than a little bit of noise when the third shift let out last night, everything has worked out far better than expected,” said Bath Deputy Police Chief Andy Booth. “If things can stay like this I’ll be happy.”

Cynthia Phinney, president of Maine AFL-CIO, a state federation of labor unions, said Sunday that Local S6’s overwhelming vote to strike “should send a crystal clear message to BIW management: Respect your workers, go back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract.”

“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,” Phinney said. “BIW proposals roll back job quality, worker protections and safety. … 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.”

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