Shipyard, union reach tentative deal to end strike in Maine

National

Striker’s signs are gathered near Bath Iron Works, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Bath, Maine. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6 is in its fifth week of the strike over a new contract. The shipbuilder and union remain at odds over issues of seniority and subcontractors. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

BATH, Maine (AP) — Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works and production workers reached a tentative agreement to end a strike that has stretched on for more than a month during a pandemic, officials announced Saturday.

The proposal, which was unanimously endorsed by the union’s negotiating team, will be put forth to the 4,300 members of Machinists Local S6 later this month, said Jay Wadleigh, a district union official.

A federal mediator helped to bring the two sides together on subcontracting, seniority and work rules. The tentative agreement, reached late Friday, retains the company’s proposal for annual wage increases of 3% over three years, along with some health care improvements, Wadleigh said.

“It preserves our subcontracting process, protects seniority provisions and calls for a collaborative effort to get back on schedule,” he said.

The tentative agreement positions the shipyard and workers “to partner together to improve schedule performance, restore the yard’s competitiveness and ensure ‘Bath Built’ remains ‘Best Built’ for generations to come,” said Dirk Lesko, the shipyard’s president, referencing the shipyard slogan “Bath built is best built.”

Voting on the proposal will take place online and via telephone from Aug. 21-23.

Production workers went on strike June 22after overwhelmingly rejecting the company’s final offer. The strike dragged on for more than six weeks against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic — during which workers lost their company-paid insurance — and an election year in which some politicians sought to get involved on behalf of workers.

Frustration at the shipyard — a subsidiary of General Dynamics that builds guided-missile destroyers for the U.S. Navy — had been building among workers since the last contract in which the Machinists accepted concessions that were deemed necessary to win a U.S. Coast Guard contract — and save shipbuilding jobs.

Bath Iron Works lost that contract to another shipyard in 2016. It also lost a lucrative competition for Navy frigates in late April. Shipbuilders contended production workers shouldn’t shoulder the cost for problems they blame on mismanagement.

The pandemic exacerbated the tensions at the shipyard. Some workers were angry when the shipyard rebuffed requests to shut down for two weeks. The shipyard was considered essential and production continued even though hundreds of workers stayed home.

The strike threatened to put production further behind schedule at a time of growing competition from China and Russia. Bath Iron Works was already six months behind before the strike, partly because of the pandemic.

The shipyard, a major employer in Maine with 6,800 workers, has been undergoing a transition as aging workers reach retirement. The shipyard hired 1,800 workers last year and expects to hire 1,000 workers this year. Despite all of the new workers, who must be trained, the shipyard said it needs the flexibility of hiring subcontractors.

The last strike, in 2000, lasted 55 days.

Robert Martinez Jr., the international president of the Machinists who rallied shipbuilders two weeks ago in Bath, said in a statement that he was proud of the Local S6 “for standing strong in defense of themselves, their families and good Maine jobs.”

In Bath, motorists honked as they drove by pickets in front of the union hall, across from the shipyard.

David Archer, a sand blaster, said he was happy to see the strike coming closer to a resolution. He has a blood disorder that puts him at a higher risk for the coronavirus, and he had to cut back on weekly blood tests during the strike. Each test costs $1,000, he said.

But he remained resolute. “I understand what we’re striking for, and I stand behind my fellow brothers and sisters,” he said.

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