Labor

A misguided strike at Bath Iron Works

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I have been deeply disappointed to see the strike going on at Bath Iron Works (BIW). As a resident of neighboring Woolwich, I can see firsthand the impact this labor dispute is already having on our community. As a neighbor and friend to workers involved with the strike, my heart goes out to the families who are struggling without income and insurance.

As a former official in the Maine Department of Labor, I also look at the big picture, and understand the ripple effects this strike will have across our state if it drags on. For the sake of everyone – the workers, the company, the people of Maine – the strike should end now.

BIW’s importance to Maine’s economy cannot be overstated. With more than 6,500 employees, the shipyard is one of the largest employers in the state. And with its workers making average annual wages of nearly $60,000 — almost double the Maine average of $31,000 — it is providing critical support to many families and communities. In light of the economic turmoil created by the coronavirus pandemic, we need those jobs now more than ever.

But BIW’s economic impact goes well beyond its employees’ wages.

The company buys goods and services from almost 300 suppliers across Maine, purchasing everything from machine parts to cleaning supplies. In some cases, those businesses would not even exist without the shipyard’s operations. If BIW were to ever shut down, jobs at all of those companies would be at risk.

Notably, this spring, to support social distancing during the pandemic, the company purchased more than 250,000 individually-packaged meals for its employees from 21 local restaurants. Many of these restaurants would have closed their doors permanently if it were not for BIW’s business.

BIW also plays a significant role in our economy by training workers for the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow. In partnership with the Maine Community College System, BIW’s Training Academy at Brunswick Landing is providing workers with skills in a variety of trades. Through this Academy, the company is helping to ensure we have a steady supply of skilled manufacturing workers in Maine, which is vital to attracting other manufacturers to the state.

If an agreement is not reached quickly, BIW is likely to lose even more work, as the Navy will increasingly view the company as an unreliable partner. Over the longer-term, the shipyard itself is at risk. Union leaders should keep in mind that the competition for Navy contracts is fierce. Shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls, with large facilities in lower-cost Virginia and Mississippi, would gladly take future destroyer contracts off BIW’s hands. That would mean fewer union jobs here in Maine, which would create another major hit to the Maine economy.

Most labor disputes center around issues of pay and benefits. That is not the case here. BIW proposed a contract with wage increases and a continuation of its already generous health and pension benefits.

Instead, despite this fair offer on the table, the union leadership has focused its ire on the issue of subcontracting. BIW management says they need to use subcontracting in certain instances to get production back on track, such as when they do not have enough workers in a given trade, or for work unrelated to shipbuilding, such as snow shoveling. Considering that the shipyard is already at least six months behind schedule on delivering its next destroyer to the Navy, and has lost a series of contracts for new work due to its slow production pace, subcontracting in these instances seems like a reasonable ask. 

BIW is hardly the only large corporation to face union displeasure. In my experience as a Human Resources professional, disputes of this kind are commonplace and part of the normal give and take between management and organized labor. But the timing and the issues for this strike seem particularly misguided on the part of the union. And the risks to individual families, our community, and the broader Maine economy are significant.

It is time for company executives and union leaders to come together in good faith to end the strike and get back to work.

About Susan Wasserott

Susan Wasserott is a former candidate for Maine State Senate District 23 and the former Director of Legislative Affairs for the Maine Department of Labor.

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