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Workers emerging from painful reset at Bath Iron Works

January 21, 2018

FILE - In this Sept. 29, 2017, file photo Bath Iron Works president Dirk Lesko makes opening remarks at a news conference at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. After years of shrinking employment, things are looking up for Maine's largest employer. The shipyard is on a hiring spree and morale is looking up. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

BATH, Maine (AP) — After a stormy chapter in labor relations, the leader of Bath Iron Works aims to collaborate more with workers as the shipbuilder completes production of a stealthy class of destroyers and competes for an entirely new class of smaller warships.

Dirk Lesko said after wrapping up his first year as president that he maintains an “abiding faith” in the workforce to help solve problems to keep the General Dynamics subsidiary competitive as the president’s goal of expanding the Navy fleet’s size is met with difficult fiscal realities in Washington.

“None of us is as smart as all of us. When we’re all pulling together and working on the same problem, the solutions are always better,” he told The Associated Press.

But changes don’t come easily and wary workers must be convinced through actions, said Mike Keenan, president of Machinists Union Local S6, the shipyard’s largest union.

The shipyard is emerging from a painful reset.

Lesko’s predecessor, Fred Harris, angered many of the shipyard’s 5,700 workers by removing a blue “BIW” flag, a shipyard symbol for years, and insulted them by declining to use the oft-repeated phrase, “Bath-built is best built.” He sought to have lower-wage contractors do more work on ships.

Harris was an outsider who won deep concessions from unionized workers to compete for a lucrative Coast Guard contract that was ultimately won by a competitor.

Workers remain angry and frustrated.

“A lot of people took a lot on the chin to make us more competitive. If we’re going to succeed, then their voices need to be heard,” Keenan said.

The outgoing president’s leadership style may have been a “shock to the system” but the shipyard needed to address its reputation for being costly, said Jay Korman, a Navy analyst with Avascent Group in Washington. During tight budget times, cost is as important as the quality on which workers have buttressed their reputation, he said.

“If you can address the cost issue, if that makes you competitive of a new class of ships, then I think it’s for the betterment of the yard in the long run,” Korman said.

Cost is ever important.

The Navy wants to increase the fleet’s size — something President Donald Trump supports — but the budget is limited and construction is spread out among shipyards in other states.

At Bath, there are other challenges than cost.

The shipyard has added 2,000 workers over the last 3½ years to replace retiring workers, and will be adding hundreds more, officials said. Many of those workers were hired to work on the futuristic Zumwalt class of destroyers, the largest and most technologically advanced destroyers built for the U.S. Navy. Now, they’re going to shift to an upgraded class of Arleigh Burke destroyers featuring a new radar system that makes the ships capable of providing ballistic missile defense.

The company is also asking lawmakers to extend state tax breaks. Executives want to extend a tax credit for up to $3.5 million a year.

For now, the shipyard has contracts to carry the workers through 2022 and the company is aggressively pursuing a contract for a new class of frigates.

That’s plenty for a new leader to juggle. But he’s confident about the future because workers and shipyard managers are on the same page with a “shared reality.”

“I’m absolutely committed to working with every part of the workforce,” he said. “The people are what make this place incredible. And if you ask them to do something, and they understand what you want, even if it’s impossible, they’ll figure out how to do it.”

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