By JAMES FORTIN
Shipyard workers at Bath Iron Works (BIW) called-out from their shifts March 24 in response to company demands they work during the COVID-19 pandemic even after a worker there had tested positive for the disease. Nearly 60% of the company’s workforce of 6,800 simply did not come in, according to Tim Suitter, a spokesperson for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Local 6, which represents the majority of BIW workers.
Bath Iron Works is a builder of guided-missile cruisers and destroyers for the U.S. Navy. The shipyard has kept production going while two workers there have tested positive for the coronavirus. Work on these ships requires a significant amount of close contact between workers in small, enclosed areas, an environment conducive to the spread of the disease. A tuberculosis outbreak at the shipyard infected nearly 600 workers in 1989, according to the CDC.
The Union had previously requested that company management close the shipyard with paid sick leave for all workers. The company refused, instead offering workers the option of either coming in to work or taking two weeks of unpaid leave. BIW management has refused to back down and has the support of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, James Geurts. Earlier this week Geurts wrote, “I understand that this national emergency presents a challenge and we are dedicated to working closely with you to ensure the safety of the workforce and the national security mission,” adding “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry…you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”
The impromptu action at the Maine shipyard is one of dozens of recent worker-led protests around the country. Workers everywhere are demanding the right to safe working conditions, including increased safety measures and protective equipment, during this rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic. Retail workers at Office Depot and Target have been told they cannot wear masks, prompting protests. Health workers demanding adequate protective equipment have held picket lines at hospital entrances. Amazon workers in New York have walked off the job to insist that the company provide them with gloves, masks, adequate spacing between workers, and that warehouses where workers have tested positive for coronavirus be temporarily closed to be sanitized. There are many more examples of working people demanding their bosses remove death from the list of workplace hazards.
BIW workers come from throughout the southern area of Maine to work at the Bath facility by car, vans and buses, some traveling as much as two hours to get to their jobs. If COVID-19 spreads at BIW, the disease will likely be transmitted throughout the state. Union leaders wrote in a statement yesterday that “we go home every night to our families, husbands, wives and children. Some of us or them have preexisting conditions that put us all at a greater risk of serious complications if diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.” Another shipyard worker asked, “who will build their damn ships when we are all sick or dead?”
Bath Iron Works is owned by General Dynamics Corporation, the fifth-largest armaments contractor in the U.S., making nuclear submarines, ships, and military communications systems. In 2018 alone General Dynamics made profits of $3.34 billion. Workers at BIW have voiced resentment at the intransigence of BIW management and the Navy given the profitability of the company. The union made a number of contract concessions to the company during their last negotiations. “We stuff their pockets and they stuff it to us,” explained one worker leaving his shift.
As of this writing about 30% of the shipyard workforce refuses to come to work. BIW workers have secured support from the entire bi-partisan Maine congressional delegation, as well as from the Maine Legislature’s House Speaker and Senate President. Community support for the workers is growing and is evident letters to the editor of the local newspaper.
One letter to the editor of the Times Record, a Midcoast Maine newspaper, read: “It is unconscionable to ask workers to choose between caring for their children—who are out of school in this [pandemic] emergency—and feeding them. And equally unconscionable for a large corporation not to take every step to keep its works and surrounding community safe and to share the financial sacrifice so many are making.”
Then again, it takes quite a bit for large corporate conglomerates, especially war industry profiteers with absolutely no conscience, to put people before profits.