Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
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Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor
(December 2008).
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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down
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The Internationalist
July 2020

Shipbuilding Workers in Maine Fight General Dynamics Union-Busting

Victory to the Bath Iron Works Strike!

Bath Iron Works strikers on first day of the walkout, June 22. (Troy R. Bennett / Bangor Daily News)

BATH, Maine, June 29 – At 12:01 a.m. on Monday, June 22, some 4,300 members of Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America/International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Local S6 went on strike at the Bath Iron Works (BIW) shipyard here, where workers produce Arleigh Burke- and Zumwalt-class destroyers for the U.S. Navy. BIW is owned by General Dynamics, which is one of the largest military contractors in the world, maker of the M1 Abrams main battle tank, and which year-in and year-out rakes in $3 billion annual profits on $30 billion in sales with its lucrative cost-plus contracts.

Amid record unemployment, a global pandemic and mounting pressure from the military as BIW’s order backlog grows longer, the shipyard workers have shown they are ready and willing to fight. When a worker at the plant tested positive for COVID-19, word spread like wildfire, and on March 24 more than 3,000 called out sick. What’s at stake in this strike is the survival of the union, as IAM international president Robert Martinez, Jr. stressed in a press release: “The company is engaged in flat-out union-busting, and is exploiting the current pandemic to attempt to outsource work from its dedicated employees.”

Now the battle has been joined, and it will take real class struggle to bust the union-busters. The last strike at the shipyards, in 2000, went on for 55 days, which worries BIW and GD corporate officers and the naval brass. The shipbuilders are in a strong position to win this fight if they hang tough, “come hell or high water” or anti-strike orders from the Pentagon or the White House. Looking to the bosses’ National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a loser, but a victory here could set the stage for a wave of labor struggles nationwide. The BIW workers’ strike must be taken up by the entire labor movement – Victory to IAM Local S6!

At issue in the strike are demands by the company to rip up seniority protections and to increase subcontracting, as well as jacking up workers’ contributions to health insurance. The shipyard is running six months behind schedule, according to the Defense One news site, with a backlog of eleven ships due to delays stemming from mismanagement exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, the military and business press are full of hand-wringing articles. “It is critical for our Navy that we get ships, we get them on the schedule we contract for them, and that we have high confidence in our shipbuilders to deliver,” complained the assistant secretary of the Navy, James Guerts. In a letter to the Maine Congressional delegation, BIW boss Dirk Lesko cited Vice Adm. William Galinis, the new chief of the Naval Sea System Command, to the effect that “other shipyards with which the Navy does business, our competitors, regularly use subcontractors to address shortfalls in skilled labor to overcome schedule challenges.”

Worker discontent with Iron Works management has run rampant in recent years. The last contract offered up a variety of concessions in the hope of making the company more “efficient” as it vied for a Coast Guard bid. “I was one of the few on the Negotiating Committee that opposed it at the time,” current local president Chris Weirs told an Internationalist reporter, “but we took a five-year wage freeze so they could make a bid on those [Heritage-class] patrol cutters.” Of course, when the company lost the bid, the concessions weren’t returned.

In January 2020, state legislators started threatening to rescind a $45 million tax credit provided to the company on condition that it continue to provide good-paying jobs, citing plans to hire out-of-state contractors and to subcontract low-wage workers, as well as a decline in the average pay at the site as proof that BIW wasn’t living up to its end of the bargain. This further riled S6 members. But it was the company’s brutal indifference to the lives and health of its employees during the coronavirus pandemic that really stirred a hornet’s nest in the ranks.

Local S6 is going up against General Dynamics, one of the world’s largest, and always profitable, war contractors. (William Hall / Maine Business News)

In the March 24 walkout, the union called on the company to shut down for two weeks to clean and disinfect the facility, with full pay for employees. Management refused. After much legal wrangling involving state officials and the intervention of the U.S. Navy, the shipyards were declared “essential.” Initially, BIW refused to provide PPE (personal protective equipment) and insisted that workers provide their own masks. Many workers voted with their feet, and absenteeism was rampant until the company issued a “back-to-work” ultimatum in May. As we go to press, there are reports that four additional employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

As local union president Weirs told News Center Maine on April 10, “Our membership right now collectively is so turned over as far as hatred for Bath Iron Works and how they’re being treated, echoes of the word ‘strike’ are being heard through the shipyard.” Two months later, in a mail ballot, 87% of participating members voted against the proposed contract agreement and to go on strike.

In the last two weeks of the contract, IAM members showed their anger at the company by creating a raucous din, “every hour on the hour, for a minute,” a picketer told The Internationalist. “We would down hammer and bang on sheet metal, you could hear it across the river in Woolwich, it was so loud.” “It’s just a perfect storm,” added another picketer, “How much can you take? No raises for five years, then the disease, now this insulting contract. We decided we were going to hold the line here, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many ships are in the water.”

The Bath Iron Works strike is no local matter. Across the country and around the world, the bosses and their politicians have insisted that the working class and poor shoulder the burden of the ravages caused by the coronavirus pandemic. From employees of logistics giants Amazon and UPS to packinghouse workers and nursing home staffs, companies have made it clear that death and disease are no big whoop compared to the horror of flagging profits. As the United States reports over 2.5 million COVID-19 cases and over 126,000 deaths from the virus, the capitalist bosses have been on the offensive in a mad rush to reopen the economy.

As Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to order pork and beef processing plants reopened despite huge numbers of COVID-19 infections, the Pentagon leaned on Mexico to reopen the maquiladora (free trade zone) factories along the U.S.-Mexico border, where superexploited workers labor for the U.S. market. Among the corporate giants calling for the factories to reopen was GD. From Bath, Maine to Matamoros, Mexico, the name of the game is profits, profits, profits, and workers lives be damned. On June 8, courageous labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas, who has led a fight to shut down and clean up the maquiladoras, was arrested on trumped-up charges. Local S6 should join in demanding: Freedom now for Susana Prieto!

Despite expressions of support from other labor unions, such as the Teamsters and the Maine Nurses Association, it is crucial to see clearly that this class battle will not be won by playing by the bosses’ rules. The original directives from the union instructed picketers not to engage with scabs nor to block entrances to the struck facility. Now appeals are being made for federal mediation. What is needed instead is to mobilize and organize the power of the working class to shut down Bath Iron Works!

A glimpse of this power was visible all along the Pacific coast a week and a half ago, when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down all the West Coast ports on Juneteenth (the day celebrated as marking the end of slavery) in solidarity with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of racist cop terror. This is the kind of power that needs to be brought to bear in the BIW contract battle. As we wrote two months ago:

“The class struggle does not shut down during a ‘natural’ disaster – if anything it intensifies. Contrary to the deceptively reassuring and hypocritical ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric of the politicians, the stark realities of life or death expose the fundamentally opposed interests of the exploiters and the exploited – at least for those who dare to see. And the capitalist rulers never ‘let a good crisis go to waste’ That is why, for the working class and all the oppressed, desperate and tragic times cry out for revolutionary leadership.”
–“As the COVID-19 Pandemic Rages, Workers Fight for Health and Safety,” The Internationalist >No. 59, March-April 2020

A class-struggle leadership of the labor movement would meet the threat of union-busting subcontracting by fighting to bring all these workers into the IAM, and for union control of hiring – organize the unorganized – for a union hiring hall. In the face of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, workers should form all-worker elected safety committees, independent of management, with the power to shut down production. Faced with rising health care premiums and increases in co-pays, a combative union movement would fight for socialized health care, free for all. And instead of appeals to the NLRB, build mass picket lines that no one crosses!

Workers in “defense” industries are also in a key position to fight the warmongering policies of the imperialist rulers. A key reason why the Pentagon is hot to get the destroyers being built at BIW into the water is to step up provocative deployments in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats alike blame Beijing for the coronavirus, when the truth is that China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state, was uniquely able with its planned economy to limit the spread of the virus and the numbers of dead, in contrast to the disastrous response in the U.S. Just because naval construction workers build Navy ships doesn’t mean they share the war aims of the profit-driven rulers who don’t give a damn about them or any workers anywhere.

Historically, shipyard workers have played a key political role precisely because they are a stronghold of workers power. In November 1982, when the Ku Klux Klan threatened to march in Washington, D.C., longshore and shipbuilders union leaders and activists from Norfolk, Virginia played a key role in a powerful labor/black mobilization that stopped the fascists cold. And going further back, in November 1918 dockers and shipyard workers in the port of Kiel were the spark that set off the German Revolution that brought the slaughter of World War I to an end.

Today, the power of the unions is hamstrung by a pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy that has chained workers to the bosses’ parties, particularly the Democrats. Yet the Democrats no less than Republicans have pushed policies like outsourcing and subcontracting that have destroyed unions and union gains for the last four decades. Instead of relying on Democratic Party phony “friends of labor” politicians like Joe Biden, who claims to support Local S6 workers, class-conscious workers must call to break with the Democrats and undertake the urgent task of building a revolutionary workers party that champions the cause of all of labor and the oppressed.

Victory to IAM Local S6! Bust the union-busters! ■