Workers on Strike in Maine Shipyards

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By ART LECLAIR

 

BATH, Maine-At 12:01 a.m., Aug. 28, 4800 members of International Association of Machinists Local S6 struck Bath Iron Works (BIW) facilities in Bath, East Brunswick, and Portland, Maine. The strike resulted when union members rejected the company’s contract offer by a margin of 88 percent.

BIW, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, is the premier designer and builder of complex, technologically advanced naval warships. It employs more than 8000 people.

One of the key issues in the dispute is the company’s insistence on “cross-training.” Under the proposed agreement workers would receive training in areas of work currently done by another craft.

For example, if welders are needed to complete work in one area, and no welders are available, a pipe-fitter would be “loaned” to do the welding and vice-versa.

Clearly seeing this as an attempt to break down job classifications to facilitate layoffs, the membership rejected the pact and walked off their jobs, paralyzing the shipbuilder.

Four days later, a tentative agreement was announced after members of the draftsmen’s union, the shipyard’s second-largest with 800 workers, voted to join the striking shipbuilders in a sympathy strike.

The new agreement resulted in a 4-3 split on the negotiating team. Local S6 President Rock Grenier told reporters, “We have to see if they [membership] are prepared for a long fight.” The last strike at BIW was a 99-day walkout in 1985.

“We have to make them [membership] understand we’re recommending it based on one week into the strike,” stated Tony Prevost, the Local’s Business Representative. “If we go back to the strike it will take a long time.”

The press conference ended with union officials saying that according to the company, this is the best they could do. “Now our members will have to weigh in. It’s their choice,” concluded Prevost.

Questionable circumstances

The membership indeed made their choice on Sept. 4, when they once again rejected the proposal, but by a much lower margin and under questionable circumstances. To date neither the local union nor IAM have made any official announcement about the vote, but the strikers agree that the final tally was 1805-1611.

Several picketers said they were upset about how the vote was conducted and suspicious about the large number of votes in favor of the contract offer. “I’m surprised it was so close,” stated a pipe-fitter with almost 20 years on the job, who asked to remain anonymous. “At the first vote, we signed our names, showed our badges, and they marked our hand. On Sunday [Sept. 4], anyone could have gone in there.”

People were asked what their badge numbers were, but they did not have to be produced.

Walking the picket line outside the shipyard, Larry Stegna, an electrician at BIW for 21 years voiced his displeasure with the voting process. “Anybody could have gotten a ballot and anybody could have voted,” said Stegna. “I am behind my union 100 percent, but the lack of professionalism of this vote left a bad taste in my mouth.” Other picketers agreed.

“People have made some complaints in regard to that,” according to Local S6 President Grenier. He said the union is reviewing the ballots and “double checking to reiterate that everything was done right.” However, Grenier could not explain why members did not have to show their BIW badges prior to voting.

Needless to say, emotions were high as the voting got under way. After the secret ballots were collected and the outcome announced, workers emerged from the Augusta Civic Center with fists in the air, chanting, “strike, strike, strike.”

Many threw their copies of the rejected agreement into a pile and stated a bonfire. Police had to clear out the strikers so the fire department could extinguish the blaze.

Need for union solidarity

What is needed most at a time like this is union solidarity. Leaders of the Bath Marine Draftsmen’s Association, a UAW affiliate that staged a sympathy strike prior to the tentative agreement, offered to return to the picket line with the machinists.

Apparently, they asked Local S6 officials if the draftsmen, whose contract expires early next year, were forced to strike at that time, would the striking shipbuilders do the same for them.

According to sources close to the scene, the request was answered with silence. After being rejected, some of the draftsmen voiced interest in knowing why IAM Local S7, which represents planners and “liaisons” at the shipyard, weren’t honoring the picket lines.

Is this type of “solidarity” helpful in winning a strike? Obviously not. In a healthy, vibrant labor movement, the question should never even have to be asked.

Part and parcel of today’s misguided labor movement is the practice of not honoring another’s picket line. The two-gate system, institutionalized by the building trades, is a perfect example.

Under this device, if one union, say iron workers, have a dispute with a contractor and walk off the job, setting up a picket line, all the other crafts have to do is use a designated “second gate,” at which the iron workers, by agreement, don’t picket. Therefore, union workers from the other crafts aren’t “penalized” because of a dispute that “doesn’t involve them.” No wonder we’re in so much trouble!

In 1981, a dispute of historic proportions took place in the United States. Members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), went on strike over safety and health issues at the nation’s airports and regional air traffic control centers. But their picket lines were ignored by labor unions, including those in the airlines industry.

Some did so out of spite, because PATCO had endorsed Ronald Reagan in his presidential campaign.

However, years later in a conversation the author had with a friend who was a local official with the controllers’ union at Boston’s Logan Airport, he revealed that PATCO, as a matter of policy, did not even approach the airline unions for solidarity. PATCO neglected to do so out of concern that in the future, when one of them went out on strike, they would expect PATCO members to support them on the picket line. Solidarity forever!

Why the movement is confused

For years now union members in this country have been told that “strikes don’t work any more.” Of course they don’t. When “organized” in the fashion of the examples above, how could they? Instead, union “leaders” deliver us into the hands of politicians and other reptiles as part of the search for the messiah.

This is what is now happening in Bath. Less than two weeks into the strike, some picketers, leery of a sell-out by the IAM, were already talking about a “decert” (decertification vote) down the road. There was talk of resurrecting the campaign for an independent union, which failed only a few years ago.

At Amtrak, where I work, hardly a day goes by without the same kind of talk. Everywhere, it seems, union members are fed up with the lack of leadership, if not out and out treachery of the trade-union bureaucracy. And like everywhere else, workers are looking for an easy fix to the problem. But there is no easy fix.

If there is one word that aptly describes today’s labor movement, “confused” would be my choice. With the constant bombardment by the bosses and the government, combined with sermons ad nauseam from union skates that we can’t fight our own battles, why should it be any different?

There is an answer to solve this debacle, but its not an easy one.

Since the AFL-CIO bureaucrats have become partners with the capitalist class, they must be removed along with the bosses. The only answer is the rising up of the working class to throw the bums out. Until that time approaches, workers in the United States will be subjected to one snake oil salesman after another.

On Sept. 20, Local S6 and BIW returned to the negotiating table at the request of a federal mediator. We urge all our readers in New England to try to visit the shipyard picket line. They deserve and appreciate support.

Socialist Action News

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