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Imperialism is Not an Essential Service: Bath Iron Workers on Strike

Over 4,000 shipyard workers are on strike at the Bath Iron Works facility in Maine. These workers, who directly supply the U.S. military, have a strategic power far beyond their numbers and deserve the active solidarity of the entire working class.

Kate Frey

July 6, 2020
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Photo: AP / Robert F. Bukaty

Bath Iron Works, located in Bath, Maine on the Kennebec River in mid-coastal Maine, is a major U.S. military contractor and employs about 6,000 people. In 1995, the firm was bought out by General Dynamics, the fifth largest military contractor in the U.S. The shipyard’s main customer is the U.S. Navy, and it has built and designed frigates, cruisers, destroyers, and battleships, making it the navy’s fifth largest shipbuilder. BIW is a major part of Maine’s economy and accounts for about half of the state’s estimated 12,500 jobs in that industry. These are well-paying jobs with an average annual salary of $64,340, which is well above the state average for all salaried workers of $41,548. BIW’s last contract vote was in late 2015 when, in tense negotiations,the company forced concessions from the unions after threatening to lay off 1200 workers — 35 percent of their workforce — if BIW lost an $11 billion contract bid to build nine ships for the U.S. Coast Guard. In order to reduce costs, the company proposed hiring outside contractors, and the unions agreed to more paid overtime to avoid this. The unions also agreed to accept bonuses in lieu of annual raises. In 2016 BIW lost the bid to a Florida based company but the company was later able to secure additional Navy contracts.

More recently, contract negotiations between BIW and the Local S6 chapter of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers broke down. The company claimed that the shipyard had fallen six months behind schedule in building and delivering two classes of guided missile destroyers, and therefore needed to hire non-union temporary workers to help with the backlog and fix emergent issues. The company offered a three percent raise over three years. However, this will not compensate for the 11 percent increase in the cost of health insurance.

The union is faced with demands for over a dozen concessions. In addition to the hiring of sub-contractors, BIW proposed changes in shift preferences and work assignment locations. IAM Local S6 says these changes would wreak havoc with the existing system of overtime and seniority and the rights of union workers. The company’s stance is widely regarded as a union-busting move. According to USNI News, the union’s negotiating committee issued a statement calling the contract offer “garbage” and accused the company president of “deceitful, dishonest, despicable, unprofessional and relentless” efforts to destroy the union. S6 Local president Chris Weirs issued a statement saying,  “We are adamantly opposed to BIW’s demands to roll back worker protections and job quality standards, to massively increase subcontracting, and to gut the language in our contract that makes these decent, safe jobs.”

On June 19, 87 percent of the unionized workforce voted to strike. The strike began at 12:01 a.m. on June 22 as hundreds of workers walked off the job. In the first week of July, striking workers lost their employer-provided healthcare. Employees now have to either pay for medical expenses out of pocket or scramble for an alternate health insurer. The company is being widely criticized for hiring additional non-unionized contractors to help in what they claim is a backlog of orders. Talks have stalled and BIW and the unions are scheduled to go into federal mediation the second week of July.

Factory Kept Open Despite the Danger

On March 15, Governor Janet Mills declared a state of civil emergency in Maine due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus and shut down all non-essential businesses. BIW employees live in hundreds of towns in all of the state’s sixteen counties, and the spread of infection in the shipyard could potentially have devastating consequences throughout the state.

Four BIW employees tested positive for the coronavirus. On March 24, after news of the first coronavirus case became public, over half the shipyard’s employees called in sick. State and local officials, including Maine’s congressional delegation, hinted at the need for a shutdown. The two largest unions demanded BIW close the shipyard for at least two weeks and send its 6,000 workers home with full pay. The Defense Department, however, declared BIW and other military contractors to be “essential businesses,” and President Trump declared that BIW must remain open. The company said that workers could use their vacation and sick time during this period and granted employees the option of unpaid leave from March 16 to March 27. AIM Locals S6 and S7 said this unfairly penalized workers, especially those with families, and didn’t adequately address the threat of the pandemic. On June 29, after the first  three Covid-19 infections were confirmed, the Maine Center for Disease Control announced it was launching an investigation.

IAM Local S6 has long been critical of the fact that BIW has been heavily subsidized by the state of Maine for many years. General Dynamics received at least $203.4 million from the state from 1997 to 2017. The company has received more subsidies than any other company in Maine since at least 1995, beating out runner-up Texas Instruments by $76.6 million, and this does not include the $45 million ship building tax credit approved in 2018. General Dynamics made profits of $3.34 billion in 2018.

Lisa Savage, a Maine Independent and Green Party candidate for Senate, supported the union, saying: “Bath Iron Works in Maine is currently engaged in union-busting contract negotiations to promote its ongoing policy of bringing in contract labor that is not unionized. This follows years of no-raise contracts with its largest union, S6, the result of BIW demanding that workers sacrifice so that its owner can pay its CEO tens of millions of dollars a year and buy back its own stock. General Dynamics can afford to pay workers fairly, given the $45 million tax break the Maine Legislature granted the massive military manufacturer, and the $900 million in cash on hand the company reported in its last SEC filing.”

The Need to Repurpose Arms Facilities

BIW, the Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin — owned by the Italian company Fincantierri — and other shipyards are in competition for a lucrative contract to build up to ten frigates worth up to $5.5 billion. This included an intense lobbying effort by Wisconsin state legislators. The move towards the use of smaller frigates is tied to the ramping up of U.S. military competition against China and preparations for a war between the two nations. The article quotes Marine Corps commandant Gen. David Berger, who said that he wants “mobile and fast” ships used to keep U.S. Marines on temporary bases as near as possible to China since, “the farther you back away from China, the more they will move toward you.” The 2020 U.S. military budget, supported by both parties, is approximately $721 billion, more than that of the next seven countries combined.

In a Counterpunch article, author Kathy Kelly calls for the conversion of military production facilities for use in the development of public transportation, resources for the creation of renewable energy, and disaster-response vessels. With the growing threat of climate change, the massive and growing disparities of wealth in the U.S., and a widely-predicted economic depression in the wake of the pandemic, this would seem to be imperative. 

In November 2011, then-President Obama announced his “pivot to Asia,” a redeployment of U.S. military force to the Asia/Pacific region. More recently, in 2018, several documents by the U.S. Department of Defense announced a change in military policy away from the “war on terrorism,” — the use of the military to ostensibly fight Islamist terrorists in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere — and towards the containment of countries which are seen as developing threats to U.S. global power and imperialism. As the DOD 2018 Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States says: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions,” This last sentence is ironic, given that it is an accurate description of U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War.

Kelly cites research indicating that building clean energy systems would generate up to 50 percent more jobs than manufacturing arms systems. This seems to be far more desirable than the current massive ramping up of U.S. military spending, which props up the highly inequitable system of U.S. imperialist global domination that has existed for the past 60 years. In a society wracked by inequality and racial oppression, working people in manufacturing industries have the power to fight against militarism and to convert industries now servicing the military into  those that benefit society.

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