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Striking shipbuilders are losing health coverage in pandemic

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 | David Sharp, Associated Press


Striking shipbuilders picket outside an entrance to Bath Iron Works, Monday, June 22, 2020, in Bath, Maine. The vast majority of picketers did not wear pandemic facemarks. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The stakes are growing in a strike against Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works during a global pandemic as company-provided health insurance is running out for 4,300 shipbuilders who've left their jobs.

Striking workers from Machinists Union Local S6 will be responsible for their own insurance effective Wednesday, just days after three workers who carpooled together tested positive for the coronavirus.

At least one of those three workers who tested positive had been on the picket line in Bath, a union spokesman said.

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 workers are striking over subcontracting, work rules and seniority, while wages and benefits are a secondary concern. The company’s final offer called for a three-year contract with pay raises of 3% in each year.

“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 overwhelmingly rejected the company's final contract proposal and went on strike June 22. There have been no talks since then. The company had no immediate comment Tuesday.

The last strike, in 2000, lasted 55 days.

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 Ammons, 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,” Ammons 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 schedule, 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. The shipyard employs about 6,800 workers.

The pandemic has served as a backdrop for tension between the union and company. All told, a half-dozen workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said. Three recovered and returned to work; the latest three are receiving medical care, officials said.

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This story has been corrected to show the name of one of the shipbuilders is Kelley Ammons, not Kelley Hammond.

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