Striking shipbuilders picket outside an entrance to Bath Iron Works on June 22 in Bath. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

BATH — As the strike of the largest union at Bath Iron Works enters its second week, union members are bracing for the looming financial crunch as contract negotiations that would send them back to work show no signs of restarting.

Some members are prepared to find a second job to make ends meet, while other BIW veterans have considered early retirement.

“Financially, striking stinks,” said Jeff Michaud, a BIW worker of 32 years. “I have a mortgage to pay, but at the same time, I need to protect my rights.”

Machinists Union Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, rejected the three-year contract proposal last week over disagreements on the company’s plans to continue hiring subcontractors and proposed changes to worker seniority privileges.

Michaud said that during the union’s last strike in 2000, which lasted 55 days, he worked for a friend in Florida to help pay the bills. For now, his teenage son has offered to contribute his paycheck to help cover the family’s expenses until the strike ends.

During the strike, union members can earn a $150 stipend by signing up to picket outside the shipyard four hours per week.

That’s a far cry from typical wages. According to BIW, machinists in November 2019 earned $23.13 hourly; welders earned $26.31 hourly. The union posted a link on its Facebook page where people can donate to support members in need.

Union officials did not return requests for comment Monday regarding how much the union has raised or how donated funds will be used.

Jim Spear, a 31-year stage builder at BIW, said he took odd jobs like lobstering or digging clams during the union’s last strike, but he’s considering retiring early if the strike continues for as long as it did 20 years ago.

Regardless, Spear said he’s more concerned for the younger employees and recent hires who may not have much money saved.

“There are a lot of younger people who have kids, house payments, car payments, and striking is hard on them,” said Spear. “I’m praying [the union and BIW] can get back to the table soon and negotiate something for them.”

Rodney McKenna, a BIW employee of five years, said he’s prepared to find another job if necessary, but wants the union to continue pushing for a better contract to protect the rights of younger workers and those undergoing training.

“We want this company to be here for years,” said McKenna. “My son just started working here last year and I want him to be able to work here for 30 years if he wants to.”

Despite his readiness to find other work, McKenna said he’s worried others might follow him into retirement, causing an exodus of skilled workers at a time when the shipyard already is at least six months behind schedule and likely falling farther behind amid the strike.

Picketing workers said they aren’t eligible for unemployment.

Call for help

Though both shipyard and union officials have said they’re ready to restart negotiations, neither has made the first move to do so, a theme reiterated in letters shared by BIW and Local S6’s parent organizations.

In a letter to Phebe Novakovic, chief executive officer of General Dynamics, BIW’s parent company, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers President Robert Martinez Jr., asked for help resolving the disagreements.

Martinez listed the hiring of subcontractors and changing seniority privileges as two points of contention, but argued that conceding to the shipyard’s demands would harm both the union and the Navy, BIW’s main customer.

“BIW management seems to be resolute in its goal to continue to take taxpayer dollars with one hand and outsource our members’ work with the other,” Martinez wrote in his June 23 letter. “Given the vital role that these ships play in our national security, we must not allow this work to go to a substandard, under-skilled workforce.”

In a letter dated June 25, Novakovic responded by defending BIW’s demands, explaining they’re necessary for BIW to remain competitive.

“There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to work within the current contract to meet production and hiring needs that were not met with roadblocks that now warrant contract changes,” Novakovic wrote. “This contract puts us at a competitive disadvantage by impeding our ability to efficiently leverage all available resources.

“BIW currently has the right to subcontract, but the process is broken to a large degree that harms all of us,” she added. “Any changes involving seniority are intended to enable the assignment of the right skills and abilities in the right place to meet production needs.”

BIW demanded more freedom to hire subcontractors during when negotiating its last contract five years ago, which the union agreed to 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.

A competing shipyard ultimately won that contract.

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