On the Side of BIW Workers

By Bruce K. Gagnon | June 14, 2017
Reposted June 15, 2017 from The Times Record.

I am pro-union and my first job after the Air Force and college was working as an organizer for the United Farm Workers Union in Florida — organizing fruit pickers.

A couple of years ago I was invited by a union member to march with BIW workers who were protesting against General Dynamics’ management efforts to slowly but surely break the union at the shipyard by outsourcing work to non-union shops. I eagerly joined the protest. Over the years I’ve heard directly from scores of BIW workers about their grievances against the company.

Not only has GD come to the city of Bath with silver cup in hand (while its top CEO was pulling in multi-million dollar bonuses) asking for more tax breaks, but over the years the corporation has repeatedly gone to the state demanding tax cuts, always threatening to leave Maine.

GD has done little to diversify away from all-military production at BIW, whether into commercial shipbuilding, or other major nonmilitary production. So when the military contracts slow down, workers get what amounts to permanent layoffs.

GD frequently brings in nonunion middle managers and poorly trained supervisors who don’t know much about the ins and outs of shipbuilding in any given aspect of production, causing delays and inefficiencies for which the unions get blamed.

Major nonmilitary production capable of employing many hundreds, if not thousands, would be a big plus at the shipyard and I know that many workers support such a direction.

With Trump announcing he intends to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Change Accords our hopes for dealing with the harsh reality of global warming has taken another severe blow. The U.S. military has the largest carbon bootprint on the entire planet. Official Washington ‘insisted’ that the Pentagon be exempted from monitoring by the Kyoto climate change protocol and the recent Paris agreement made reporting of military impacts optional.

In Holland, all electric trains are now run on wind power. Offshore wind turbines and commuter rail systems could be built at BIW as could tidal power and solar power systems. All that is needed is the political will. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” We need to make these demands if the future generations are to have any hope for survival.

At a 1994 Labor Day Rally at BIW the speakers included then BIW President Buzz Fitzgerald, Local S6 President Stoney Dionne, IAM National President George Kourpias, Rep. Tom Andrews, AFL-CIO Treasurer Tom Donahue, Sen. George Mitchell and President Bill Clinton. Watching the event on C-SPAN archives it was remarkable that all the speakers were calling for the conversion of the shipyard. Today we find that GD has no interest in such a positive direction. (It should be remembered that GD uses federal tax dollars to build destroyers. Why couldn’t that same public tax money be used to build sustainable technologies?)

The workers and unions at BIW can’t make this kind of conversion (or diversification) happen by themselves. They are daily fighting to enforce their contract with GD and are largely consumed with trying to prevent layoffs.

Former Columbia University professor of industrial engineering Seymour Melman called our present system “Pentagon-managed state capitalism.” Melman reported that the USA by around 1990 had substantially lost its skills base in machine tool-related (and other highly skilled) industrial production, including in commercial shipbuilding — largely due to over concentration on military production.

The peace community does protest frequently at BIW, but we are not targeting the workers. We are trying to create a dialogue in the community around the need for a just transition towards more sustainable, less boom-and-bust types of production at BIW. We understand that General Dynamics is the entity that holds the power to make these big decisions — along with our elected officials like Collins, King, Pingree and Poliquin.

We know that the workers and the unions have ideas about things that could be done at BIW to stabilize employment at the shipyard. They should be given a key role in envisioning what might be built more sustainably. But none of this will happen unless the peace community, the environmental community, the religious community, labor unions, local political leaders, and the general public become advocates for a change of direction from endless war toward dealing with climate change NOW by transitioning facilities like BIW.

The workers are currently hostages during this time of political negligence where nothing gets done. I for one stand with them and urge everyone in the community to help push things along so that the environment, the community, and the workers come out on top.

Bruce K. Gagnon is a member of PeaceWorks and lives in Bath.

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