BATH — Members of the Bath Iron Works union on strike since last week are losing their health insurance amidst a pandemic Wednesday unless they opt to pay for a plan out of pocket.
Machinist Union Local S6, which represents 4,300 of the shipyard’s 6,700 employees, went on strike June 22 after rejecting the 3-year contract proposal over disagreements on the company’s plans to continue hiring subcontractors and proposed changes to worker seniority privileges. The company’s final offer called for a three-year contract with pay raises of 3% in each year.
Striking workers said Tuesday they were determined to press on even with the strike as tens of thousands of people remain unemployed in Maine, and several states report surging cases of COVID-19.
“The choice is very simple. I had to strike. There was no other option,” said Brad Farrell, who’s married and has four children, and fears subcontracting and seniority changes could force him out of his job in the tin shop.
Workers are getting prepared for the long haul, looking at other jobs and health care options. Keeping health insurance through the so-called COBRA program can cost up to a couple of thousand dollars a month. Others said they will simply do without health insurance.
Kelley Hammond, a 58-year-old marine electrician, opted to forgo purchasing insurance and filled a blood pressure prescription Tuesday, before the expiration of the company’s insurance.
“Hopefully that’ll get me through until the team can get back to the negotiating table and work out a deal,” Hammond said.
Gordon Campbell, a 55-year-old sandblaster, has money set aside, and he’s paying more to be on his wife’s insurance. “I just hope that both sides will get together and try to resolve this,” he said.
Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of Virginia-based General Dynamics, provided a good insurance plan for workers because the union negotiated for it, and that underscores the necessity of fighting for a good contract, said union spokesman Tim Suitter.
The strike has big implications not just for the shipbuilder but also for the Navy, which wants warships to be delivered as quickly as possible at a time of growing competition from Russia and China.
Bath Iron Works is one of the Navy’s five largest shipbuilders and one of only two that make destroyers, the workhorse of the fleet, which are capable of simultaneously battling aircraft, missiles, warships and submarines. Some of them have ballistic missile defense capability.
The shipyard is already about six months behind scheduled, partly because of the pandemic, and it will need subcontractors to help get back on schedule, Bath Iron Works President Dirk Lesko has said.
The union has characterized some of the shipyard’s proposals as an attempt to break the union, while the company contends it needs to streamline operations to lower prices to remain competitive.
The company hired 1,800 workers last year and is hiring another 1,000 this year, so there’s no effort to shrink the workforce, the company said.
Suitter said workers knew they would lose their Cigna health insurance starting in July and while there are extension coverage plans workers can purchase, “the premiums are outrageous,” with a lot of out-of-pocket costs.
PICKETING, GATHERINGS CONTINUE DESPITE PANDEMIC
“It’s just one more thing that you have to worry about being on strike right now as we are in the middle of that pandemic and it does raise the stakes for everyone involved, and certainly why we want to get back to the table and work through an agreement,” Suitter said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of 105 in Maine as of Tuesday, according to the latest figures from the Maine CDC. According to the Portland Press Herald, Maine had 502 active cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, with 2,646 people who have recovered from the disease caused by the coronavirus.
On Monday, BIW announced two more workers tested positive for COVID-19. These two new positive cases were tied to the shipyard’s fourth positive case, announced last week. The company said the workers had been carpooling together. There have now been six total cases at the shipyard since the pandemic reached Maine in March.
The Maine CDC planned to offer testing to 53 people who were determined to have been potentially exposed to three workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 at Bath Iron Works, according to the Press Herald. If necessary, the Maine CDC will offer department-by-department testing at the shipyard, which is one of Maine’s largest employers.
Suitter said the union is making masks available and encouraging union members to wear them. However, the union is still not requiring workers to wear masks while picketing or attending union events.
“Unfortunately it’s hard to make that mandatory, especially when a lot of people are practicing the social distancing,” he said Tuesday.
Bath Deputy Police Chief Andrew Booth said there were reportedly about 200 people at a small barbeque at the union hall on Washington Street in Bath at around 9 p.m. last Friday night. Booth said it drew more people than police were comfortable with.
The Local S6 plans to host a pig roast at the union hall on Washington Street on Friday. Booth said he is worried the event would draw more than 50 people, which is the limit for social gatherings set by Gov. Janet Mills. If there are too many people, the police will ask them to disperse, Booth said.
“We’ve got confirmed cases in the yard and it’s involving picketers,” Booth said Tuesday. “Now that there’s an outbreak, they’ve got to start taking things a little bit more seriously.”
Suitter said the pig roast is part of the union’s work to keep workers’ spirits up during the strike.
“It’s certainly one of those things that nobody wants to do,” he said. “They’re faced with not having a paycheck, faced with losing their insurance. It’s a trying time for everybody. The company doesn’t seem to have any interest in working through anything or getting back to the table soon, so anything we can do fo tour embers to last try to keep up their spirits is what we’re going to continue to do.”
With reporting by David Sharp of the Associated Press and Darcie Moore of The Times Record.