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Bath Iron Works union president says after company's response to coronavirus, 'I'd be shocked if there's not a strike.'

BIW ordered face masks for employees, expanded its sick time policy, but union leaders say the company isn't doing enough to address coronavirus, COVID-19

BATH, Maine — EDITOR'S NOTE: The above video explains how you can make your own mask without a sewing machine.

Eleven days before leaders of the largest union at BIW and company management are scheduled to begin negotiating a new four-year contract -- and less than six weeks before 4,300 members of that union were due to gather in the Augusta Civic Center to vote on a contract -- Local S6 President Chris Weirs said Thursday that the company's response to the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic continues to anger and scare many union members.

"I'd be shocked if there's not a strike," said Chris Wiers, president of Local S6 of the Machinists Union.

On Wednesday, BIW announced a slew of "improvements" to address the company's response to COVID-19, including ordering "thousands of face coverings" for workers. The company will also pay any worker who tests positive or shows symptoms of the coronavirus for the five days of work before their short-term disability policy kicks in, BIW spokesman David Hench said.

Those subject to quarantine as a result of direct contact at work with a diagnosed person will also receive up to five days leave before short-term disability begins.

After two previous options for employees to take two weeks of unpaid leave, workers can now take another four weeks of unpaid leave through May 8.

But Wiers said the changes are too little, too late, and are likely to do little to affect what he said is "extremely low morale" in the yard.

"Our membership right now collectively is so turned over as far as hatred for Bath Iron Works and how they're being treated," Wiers said. "Echoes of the word 'strike' are being heard through the shipyard. I'd be shocked if there isn't a strike."

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the union has urged BIW to shut the shipyard for two weeks and pay its workers for the duration. The time, they say, would allow the yard to be cleaned and allow employees to stay at home, as Gov. Janet Mills has since urged Mainers to do.

As of Friday, two employees had tested positive for the virus. One has recovered and returned to work.

But BIW management, and Navy leaders, echo "guidance" from President Donald Trump that identifies the shipyard as part of the country's "critical infrastructure."

Weirs said 40 to 50 percent of the company's manufacturing staff actually clocks in for their daily shifts and, for the past four weeks, many have stayed home without pay rather than risk contracting the virus.

According to Hench, 25 to 30 percent of all workers have been out either on paid vacation or paid sick leave, or unpaid leave, but he noted, "BIW is fully operational" and said the company has modified some construction sequences "to enable employees to maintain workplace distancing."

In an internal memo Sunday, BIW told workers that they would be required to wear face coverings, such as bandanas and ski masks, which they would have to supply themselves.

Credit: BIW

The union objected, however, saying that personal protective equipment is negotiated in the contract, and that the face coverings proposed by management presented a fire hazard. They filed a formal "cease and desist" letter, Wiers said, adding that had the company offered to supply the PPE and allowed workers to use it on a voluntary basis, they would have supported doing so.

The union is also preparing to file a formal grievance about BIW using subcontractors from the company Clean Harbors -- some from out of state -- to clean the shipyard, Wiers said.

He said previously that the union negotiated with management in March to use general laborers from nine different departments to help clean the shipyard, but he said he was notified Saturday that BIW would exercise an option in the contract to begin a 30-day discussion about bringing in subcontractors to clean.

He said that BIW violated the contract's joint agreement process by retaining Clean Harbor workers before the 30 days was up. In addition, he said some of the workers are from out of state and were not subject to a 14-day quarantine.

The union also objects to BIW's requirement that company employees self-quarantine, unpaid, for 14 days if they travel out of state, but did not require the same of the subcontractors.

Social Distancing Video

Hench said Wednesday that the 32 subcontracted workers -- 20 of which are from Maine -- were brought to the yard "to provide additional cleaning and disinfection to better protect our employees, consistent with the governor's executive order."

Hench said despite rumors, the workers not from Maine came from New England, Maryland and West Virginia.

Maine's Congressional delegation has sent three letters to the Navy since March 20 asking for flexibility in contracting requirements.

On Tuesday, Maine's Congressional delegation received a response from former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly. As in previous responses, the letter reiterated the Navy's interpretation of "guidance" from President Donald Trump that the shipyard is critical infrastructure.

Mobly resigned that same day and Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper named Richard V. Spencer as Acting Secretary of the Navy.

Wiers said he thinks the congressional delegation does support the union, but wishes they had been more aggressive in their approach.

Hench said Wednesday that the U.S. Navy, BIW's only customer, has been clear that they expect the shipyard to remain open as critical infrastructure and "to meet the parameters the Navy has established."

Hench said government contracts do typically contain clauses that allow for an adjustment of cost, schedule or other terms, and noted that the federal government has already acknowledged the pandemic will likely require such adjustments.

"In making that acknowledgment, the government has not made contract changes or otherwise directed BIW to stop working, but it has communicated to its contractors the recommendation to document the contractual impact of the pandemic and submit those claims to the government," he said.

However, such claims can only be submitted once the impact of the event is known and can be quantified or estimated.

He continued, "Equally important, as the nation endures unprecedented unemployment due to the COVID-19 economic downturn, here in Maine, BIW is providing high-paying, secure jobs to thousands of workers, supporting numerous small businesses, and keeping the state's economic engine churning as we continue to serve our nation as critical infrastructure."

Meanwhile, amid concerns about the coronavirus, union members have also begun to focus on contract negotiations -- a topic that was already controversial before the pandemic.

In 2015, union members voted to approve a controversial four-year contract that included no raises for workers. 

The current contract expires May 17, and while groups are already holding initial discussions, negotiations are scheduled to start in earnest on April 20.

Wiers said the union has asked BIW about an extension, but has received no response.

Hench said Wednesday that BIW had no comment on the union's request for an extension.

Members traditionally gather at the Augusta Civic Center to discuss the proposed contract and then cast two votes -- whether to support a contract negotiated by the two parties, and whether to strike.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, Wiers said he isn't sure how the union will disseminate a proposed contract to members and hold discussions.

"It's not like we can set up computers and Facetime 4,000 people," he said.

Wiers said workers are prohibited by contract from striking during negotiations, but said, "If we cannot congregate to vote, and people are not informed, and they're already agitated with BIW, they've already set the stage for [workers] to say no [to a proposed contract]. A lot of them are just going to vote no out of spite."

Wiers said he's contacted the national union office, but isn't sure what options are available.

"Nothing like this has ever occurred before," he said. "We're all wondering what the next step will be."

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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