WASHINGTON — Last year, when Bath Iron Works lobbied Maine voters and the city of Bath to approve $80 million in tax concessions to help finance the company’s proposed $200 million modernization project, shipyard officials promised that state workers would be given preference for the projected 250 high-paying construction jobs.
Here’s the catch.
Under an agreement set to be signed by BIW and ICS Kaiser, a Fairfax, Va., firm that has been retained to coordinate planning for the shipyard, nonunion construction workers and contractors would be barred from the project. Industry sources said all of Maine’s major building contractors and 87 percent of state construction workers have no union affiliation.
Kevin Gildart, BIW spokesman, insisted that nonunion Maine workers could become involved in the shipyard expansion, providing they become temporary dues-paying AFL-CIO members and their employers pay prevailing union wages and benefits. The new “union label” flap, however, is threatening to shatter the political consensus on a project company officials insist is the key to the future of Maine’s largest industrial employer.
Some members of Maine’s congressional delegation privately expressed disappointment Monday about the “fine print” that showed up at the last minute in BIW’s construction planning. Most learned about the proposed agreement from a newsletter circulated by BIW’s machinist union local chapter.
Former Republican Rep. Jim Longley Jr., a likely gubernatorial candidate next fall, charged that the sleight of hand by company and labor officials is a serious indictment of Gov. Angus King’s economic development strategy, which he described as corporate welfare gone awry. King and legislative leaders urged voters to adopt the $60 million state referendum for tax concessions. Bath provided another $20 million of incentives.
Jan Anderson, the Belfast woman who is seeking to overturn last year’s BIW bond issue, said negative publicity about the company’s deceptive dealings with state and local officials will help her group’s organizers, who have until Nov. 4 to gather 51,131 petition signatures to force another referendum. An earlier petition drive fell 32,000 signatures short of that goal.
Should that referendum succeed, Gildart warned, BIW’s corporate owner, General Dynamics, would pull the plug on the modernization project and thus threaten the longtime job security of the company’s 7,600-person work force.
Gildart confirmed that the national AFL-CIO on Feb. 10 signed a Project Labor Agreement with ICS Kaiser that stipulates that only union-building and trade members can be used on the shipyard project. In return, AFL-CIO has promised not to strike BIW during the two-year construction period of the project. BIW’s pact with Kaiser has not been signed yet, sources said.
Pete Vigue, president of Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield, the state’s largest construction company, said his firm and another Maine company, Reed & Reed of Woolwich, had seriously consulted with BIW for several months, believing they would stand a good chance of winning the major portion of the $200 million shipyard expansion, said to be the state’s largest construction project in this decade. Both Maine contractors are nonunion shops.
“Our position,” said Vigue, “is that Maine voters supported this project … This is not a union-nonunion issue. All Maine workers should be able to compete for those jobs.”
Charles O’Leary, president of Maine’s AFL-CIO, accused Vigue of misrepresenting the situation.
“I think it’s just sour grapes … Cianbro, I am sure, would gag at paying union wages and benefits … [but] if they would stop bellyaching, they could bid on this project,” he said.
Gildart said the union newsletter was inaccurate in claiming the proposed PLA “ensures that the entire project will be union built.”
“There is absolutely no prohibition against nonunion contractors or workers. We are encouraging all Maine contractors to bid on it,” he said.
Under the terms of the proposed PLA, Gildart explained, “a successful bidder would, except for key employees, be required to hire workers from union halls. Were union workers not available, the contractor could use their own workers.”
Nonunion contractors and workers hired by BIW would be paid union scale, union benefits and be required to pay union dues during the term of the project. The BIW spokesman said PLAs have been used successfully in paper mill expansion projects in Auburn and Rumford, and for some work on Maine Yankee.
In recent years the Clinton administration has pressed for the wider use of PLAs in construction projects involving federal funds. An industry study of PLAs by Associated General Contractors of America found that such agreements inflate the cost of construction by between 20 and 40 percent because of overstaffing by unions and the higher union wages and benefits paid to workers. The example most cited was Boston’s Central Artery Project, sometimes called the “Big Dig,” which was budgeted as a $3 billion project, but has ballooned to more than $10 billion.
Sources who did not want to be identified speculated that BIW was seeking to avoid a potential labor problem next year, when the contract of its machinist local must be negotiated.
In what may be the first shot in the gubernatorial campaign, Longley faulted King for failing to address the issue of Maine’s high tax rates.
“With our high taxes, no major corporation wants to expand in Maine. King’s policy has been to make sweetheart deals with companies to get them to invest here. If he can’t get large national companies to invest in Maine without significant tax relief, what does that say about you or me, or the bulk of other Maine businesses, especially those in northern Maine?” Longley said.
Dennis Bailey, King’s press spokesman, said King also was “disappointed” to learn of the union provision, but said BIW officials continue to insist nonunion members and contractors may participate in the project if they “temporarily join the union.”
“It was clear during our negotiations [with BIW] last fall that there should be a preference given for Maine contractors and workers. The Legislature,” Bailey said, “took that concern one step further by incorporating that wording in the referendum law.”
The issue of a PLA never came up last fall, Bailey conceded. He said King would continue to pressure BIW to “make sure those jobs stay in Maine,” adding, “I am sure the Legislature has similar feelings.”
Anderson said the BIW referendum repeal group, which calls itself Stop Corporate Welfare, has collected more than 15,000 signatures and expects to reach the 51,131 objective well before Nov. 4. The organizer said she “strongly believes in unions,” but found BIW’s maneuvering “kind of disturbing.”
“This strikes me as kind of a bone thrown to the union in exchange for downsizing [the work force],” she said. Anderson said her group hopes to use the BIW referendum as a way of “generating a wider debate among those in government about tax breaks to corporations.”
“Perhaps this one,” she said, “was not carefully thought out.”