U.S. Sen. Susan Collins shakes hands with Jay Wadleigh, the former president of Local S6, the largest union at Bath Iron Works, at the union hall in this 2014 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

BATH, Maine — For opponents of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, her 24-year tenure in the Senate is a sign she has been in Washington too long. For supporters, it is a main reason to send her back.

Those opposing perspectives come to a head at Bath Iron Works, where shipbuilders returned to the job this week after a two-month strike that gained national attention. Local S6, the 4,300-member machinists union that was on strike for two months, has yet to make an endorsement this year after supporting Collins during her re-election campaign in 2014.

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No Maine senator has lost re-election since 1978. BIW is a good canvas for the seniority debate. It occupies a unique position in Maine politics because work at the shipyard — one of the state’s largest private employers — centers on U.S. Navy contracts that perennially test a congressional delegation that has often carried outsized influence.

Support from unions, which generally back Democrats, once made Collins unique as a Republican. Six years ago, Local S6 cited her “tireless” work for the shipyard. Three other BIW unions — Local S7, the Bath Marine Draftsmen’s Association and the Independent Guards Association — endorsed the senator as well in a 2014 election that she won easily.

But Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, has narrowly led Collins in all independent polls released in 2020. As the most expensive race in state history has become a top national target, many unions are backing the challenger, though Local S6 is unlikely to issue its own endorsement this year. The Maine State Council of Machinists, a coalition whose affiliates include Local S6 and Local S7, endorsed Gideon in July after supporting Collins in 2014.

The shipyard has continually faced threats over the past generation, including increased competition, mostly from Huntington Ingalls, which has a Mississippi shipyard. BIW was six months behind on Navy contracts when it entered the strike, leading to worry over future work. Collins regularly touts her work to secure contracts for the yard, with her campaign saying she has helped secure $16 billion in projects for BIW since 2008.

Collins, who sits on the Senate appropriations panel and a subcommittee that handles defense allocations, would be one of only three senators in Maine’s history to serve five terms. She would also be first in line to chair the appropriations committee if Republicans retain the Senate. That resonates for some at BIW, where seniority was at the forefront of union grievances.

“If she gets re-elected, you’re talking about having the most powerful senator in Washington be from our state,” said Glenn Chateauvert, a 33-year veteran of the shipyard.

Chateauvert, who wore a shirt in support of President Donald Trump at a Local S6 rally on Saturday, said if Collins “had a ‘D’ next to her name,” she would get more union support. Worker Raymond Lynds said ousting Collins would be “cutting our nose off to spite our faces.”

But others say seniority alone does not mean Collins has delivered. They note that while BIW has secured some big contracts in recent years, it has missed out on others. Collins’ public reaction to the strike was more muted than the support workers received from other political figures, though her supporters cite a desire to maintain neutrality.

“Obviously, in the political system as it’s structured in Washington, seniority has some value, but if that seniority is not delivering results for you, what’s the point?” said John Portela, a 46-year shipyard veteran who supports Gideon.

Portela went on to cite Collins’ support for Trump nominees to top labor positions, arguing they have worked to roll back collective bargaining powers. Collins voted to confirm Eugene Scalia as labor secretary last fall despite union opposition. Scalia represented BIW in a 2007 court case related to pension changes that the shipyard won against its unions.

Opponents have also been critical of her fundraising, which includes an event co-hosted by Huntington Ingalls’ political committee last fall, the Wall Street Journal reported. She also received contributions from BIW executives, including a maximum donation from BIW President Dirk Lesko while the shipyard and the union were in tense negotiations in June.

Collins’ campaign derided both criticisms, saying BIW and Huntington Ingalls have a shared interest in Navy shipbuilding. Campaign spokesperson Kevin Kelley noted the senator’s campaign had received contributions from both shipyard workers and management and said she had canceled a June fundraiser with BIW due to the impending strike.

The Local S6 picket line drew visits from Collins, Gideon and independent Senate candidates Lisa Savage and Max Linn over the past few months, though the union itself is unlikely to endorse any candidate after twice postponing a vote. Its legislative council supports Gideon, News Center Maine reported in July. But an endorsement would require members to convene for a lodge meeting, which is complicated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chris Wiers, Local S6 president, leads a rally for striking Bath Iron Works shipbuilders, Saturday, July 25, 2020, in Bath, Maine. The production workers went on strike June 22 after overwhelmingly rejecting the company’s final contract proposal. The dispute centers on subcontractors, work rules and seniority. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

At a solidarity rally on Saturday, Robert Martinez, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Local S6’s national affiliate, called Gideon “the next U.S. senator from the great state of Maine.”

“We will remember who was with us,” Martinez said, “and you better believe we are going to vote in November.”