Shipbuilders picket outside an entrance to Bath Iron Works. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Bath Iron Works holds the next move in a strike by its largest union that started just after midnight on Monday, a union official said.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6, which has about 4,400 of the total 6,600 workers at the Navy shipyard, voted Sunday afternoon to reject a three-year contract and to strike for the first time in 20 years.

The main issues of contention in the proposed new contract are BIW’s request to bring in subcontractors to catch up on work and the union’s desire to keep seniority preferences for its members.

“It’s their move. We’re waiting for them to call and we’re willing to meet,” Jay Wadleigh, former president of Local S6 and the business representative for the union’s regional parent, said Monday.

He said BIW management had not yet reached out to him. Wadleigh said more than 1,000 picketers were on the lines on Monday morning, but the union would decrease the number and have members picket in four-hour blocks throughout the day.

Wadleigh said 3,712 union members voted from Friday through noon Sunday by email and phone. Of the voters, 87 percent rejected the contract and 87 percent ordered the strike, he said. He said the majority rules, so all S6 union workers are on the picket line. Accepting the new contract required the support of more than 50 percent of workers, while a strike required two-thirds support.

He estimated about 1,500 people were working in the shipyard Monday morning, including managers and members of two other unions, the Local S7 union clerks and the Bath Marine Draftsmen’s Association. He said other workers are taking vacation and lunch time to support the union.

BIW spokesperson David Hench said the company is focused on activating its business continuity plan, which includes “continued shipyard production with salaried personnel and others reporting to work,” he said. 

“The company and the union have not discussed returning to the bargaining table and there currently is no timeframe for doing so,” he said.

Jay Wadleigh, former president of Local S6 and the business representative for the union’s regional parent, stands near Bath Iron Works in this 2015 file photo. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

General Dynamics, the parent of BIW, said in a Sunday Facebook post that it was disappointed by the strike vote, and referred employees still working to a website for further instructions, including not forcing a physical confrontation with picketers.

The contract would allow BIW to move workers from job to job as it deems they are needed. Wadleigh also said union members can perform the jobs that BIW wants to allocate to subcontractors.

On Monday, Justine Hill, a 60-year-old fitter from Waldoboro, was picketing outside a BIW parts facility in Brunswick alongside Paul Vachon, a Lisbon welder who has worked at BIW for 39 years.

Bath Iron Works employees Paul Vachon of Lisbon, left, and Justine Hill of Waldoboro picket outside of a Bath Iron Works facility on Monday, the first day of the largest shipyard union’s first strike in 20 years. (Nick Schroeder | BDN)

Hill called General Dynamics “a cutthroat company” that will be in trouble when workers her age retire over the next few years. Both cited the seniority provisions as their biggest concerns.

“I’ve earned it, I’ve worked hard to get to that level. I’d hate to get thrown back. I have arthritis now,” Vachon said. “Everyone starts at the bottom and you work your way up.”

The strike comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has upended the economy and caused record unemployment in Maine. Roughly 4,400 workers may not have a regular paycheck at one of the state’s largest private employers.

Wadleigh said the union has put up job boards to help picketing members try to make up for lost wages. Members will get $150 a week from an international union fund, according to S6 spokesperson Tim Suitter. All union workers contribute to that fund in case of a strike.

The strike would also affect the yard’s production timeline and how the Navy calculates how many ships it will buy in the future, one defense industry analyst said. BIW management has admitted the yard already is six months behind.

BDN writer Nick Schroeder contributed to this report.