BATH, Maine — The last time Bath Iron Works looked beyond Navy shipbuilding, workers agreed to a contract aimed at boosting efficiency by allowing shipbuilders to learn and perform multiple tasks. President Clinton heaped praise on the shipyard for innovation, but those provisions were tossed aside a couple of years later.
Workers say it was a disaster.
Now anger is boiling anew as a new shipyard president once again presses to make workers more efficient and to look beyond Navy surface warships to save a loss of skilled workers.
President Fred Harris has warned that the company may slash 1,200 jobs — about 20 percent of the total workforce — if it fails to win an upcoming contract for Coast Guard cutters.
More than 1,000 workers rallied last week to show their anger, frustration and distrust, underscoring the worst labor relations since 2000 when workers set fire to a contract proposal and voted to go on strike.
"The company is acting liked a wounded animal," said Jay Wadleigh, president of Local S6 of the Machinists Union. "They're scared to death that we won't win the next contract. They're scared to death that we can't get our costs down." A little bit of fear can be healthy, he said, but too much can lead to poor decisions.
Along the Kennebec River reside three massive Zumwalt-class destroyers and several other Alreigh Burke-class destroyers in various states of construction, making it seem like the shipyard has plenty of work.
But Navy shipbuilders like Bath Iron Works have struggled.
The Navy's fleet dipped from a peak of about 600 ships in the 1980s to fewer than 300 in the 1990s. These days, Navy shipbuilders continue to walk a tightrope thanks to Navy budget cuts.
It's bad enough that the Navy's top procurement officer, Sean Stackley, told Congress last winter that about half of the Navy's eight shipyards are "one contract away" from leaving the business.
Bath Iron Works, which hasn't built a Coast Guard vessel since the 1930s, wants to avoid a disaster by outbidding two other shipyards for the next generation of "offshore patrol cutters."
To be competitive, Harris wants to have subcontractors build berthing units, lockers and door hatches, items currently built in Bath. He also wants to update task lists so workers could take on new jobs.
"The changes we are proposing are standard practices at every shipyard today. We must improve and become more efficient to win future competitions and maintain our current workforce," said shipyard spokesman Matt Wickenheiser.
For an employer, it makes sense for workers to perform multiple tasks. The idea, the company said, was that a worker in the belly of a warship didn't have to wait for someone else to scurry down hatches to assist. An electrician could sand and paint; pipefitters could end up welding; or workers could remove trash.
But workers said that past efforts made the shipyard less efficient by removing workers from their areas of specialty when they were reassigned to other tasks for days at a time.
Local S6 is going to arbitration over the company's efforts to have items built elsewhere. The union is also suing to stop arbitration, scheduled for Friday, over efforts to allow workers to perform multiple tasks.
Susan Schurman, dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, said she's surprised by the labor fight.
"The employer's demands are identical to similar changes that have taken place in ship building yards around the country," she said. "There is only so much cost that can be squeezed out by working smarter when competing against other firms that have already implemented the kind of changes on the table at BIW."
Regardless of who wins, union workers say the company is poisoning the atmosphere with a year to go on the current contract.
Workers contend the train started coming off the tracks when Harris arrived from a General Dynamics shipyard on the West Coast and informed workers that shipyards elsewhere around the world are much more efficient. Some workers wanted to take down a sign that says, "Through these gates pass the best shipbuilders in the world."
"We've been building ships here on the banks of the Kennebec since the late 19th century and you come in here in tells us we don't know what the hell we're doing?" said worker John Portela.
The relationship between yard and union has clearly soured.
"It's a very volatile situation. I can't predict what the outcome is going to be but there's some rough road ahead of us," Portela said. "The membership is frustrated, angry and agitated."