As Mainers, we should all be very concerned about the strike at Bath Iron Works and what it means for the future of the shipyard. What happens at BIW will have tremendous impact across Maine.

The reality is that BIW is an absolutely massive contributor to Maine’s economy. In addition to employing 6,600 people, the company buys goods and services from countless Maine suppliers, pumping money into businesses and communities.

Amy Volk

Our economy desperately needs this continued infusion of expenditures given the drag from the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, anyone not concerned about the fate of Maine’s economy right now is not paying attention.

Additionally, BIW now plays a critical national role in responding to the pandemic. Earlier this spring, the company was tapped by the Defense Department to help Guilford-based Puritan Medical Products speed up production of sterile testing swabs. The company built 30 additional swab-producing machines. We can all be thankful for that.

But, even before this strike, there have been speculations reported about the shipyard’s future, including a piece in Politico published early this month. The company has been six months behind schedule building one destroyer and recently lost out on several contracts for future work for the U.S. Navy as a result.

These challenges make the IAM Local S6 union’s decision to strike even more perplexing. Their work stoppage puts the shipyard further behind schedule and makes it more likely the Navy will continue to look elsewhere to build ships. Fewer contracts means fewer union jobs at BIW.

The union is also sending mixed messages on why it is striking. We have seen some complaints about wages, but it seems that their main concern is over subcontracting. To help get back on schedule, BIW wants to be able to bring in subcontractors to fill gaps in skills and manpower among its workforce. From the company’s perspective, this isn’t about saving money. It’s about building ships and putting them out to sea on schedule.

The need to use subcontractors is hardly unique to BIW. Before the pandemic at least, it was incredibly challenging to hire skilled manufacturing workers in Maine. Sometimes companies have no choice but to look to subcontractors to help out.

This certainly is not an issue of BIW not paying enough to attract talent. The shipyard pays an average wage of almost $50,000, well above the average of $41,000 among other Maine manufacturers — not to mention the respectable health and pension benefits package that accompanies the higher wage.

It is also disingenuous for union leaders to say BIW just does not want to use union workers. The company has increased the ranks of its union workers tremendously in the past few years, hiring 1,500 workers in 2019 alone. And it has invested $13 million in training those workers, many of whom came to the shipyard with little or no manufacturing skills.

I was disappointed to see union leaders put out a disturbing message to their members recently that arguably threatened violence against those who cross the picket line. Titled “Attention All Scabs,” the message concluded with a quote from Jack London’s poem titled “The Scab,” stating: “No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.”

Particularly at a time when suicides are on the rise due to an unprecedented global pandemic, that seems like a tough message to send to members who may need to work due to their financial situation, or who may simply disagree with the union’s position.

What is important now is to end the strike and get everyone back to work. My message to BIW and the union is to take a deep breath, put away the rhetoric and return to the negotiating table in good faith. Any reluctance to reach agreement endangers the future of the shipyard and, with it, Maine’s increasingly fragile economy.

Amy Volk is a former Maine state senator who represented Scarborough, Gorham and Buxton. She served two terms as chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee after serving two terms as a House member on the same committee. She and her husband own Volk Packaging in Saco.

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