PORTLAND, Maine - A union representing 4,800 workers at shipmaker Bath Iron Works voted Sunday to strike, shutting down production at one of the biggest shipbuilders for the U.S. Navy.
The shipyard is one of Maine's largest private employers, with 7,600 employees, and is one of only two shipyards in the country that build the Navy's Aegis destroyers. The destroyers cost about $900 million when fully equipped.
Members of Local S6 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers were upset over the company's pay proposal and proposed changes in work rules.
About 85 percent of the union voted to go on strike when the contract expired at midnight.
After Sunday's vote, angry workers piled up copies of the company's latest contract proposal and set them on fire. As the burning heap grew, members of the shipyard's largest union chanted ''Strike, strike, strike!'' while a worker stood by with a U.S. flag.
''You've got a corporation slurping up military contracts, and you know that those contracts are overcharged to the taxpayer. These guys get the money, and they're not willing to share,'' said Don Snowdon, an electrician for 12 years at the shipyard.
Company spokeswoman Sue Pierter said the overwhelming rejection of the contract came as a surprise.
She declined to comment on what effect a strike might have on the Navy, though workers said the shipyard is ahead of schedule on its contracts so production delays wouldn't be felt immediately.
''Certainly no one would want a strike,'' Pierter said. ''The impact will be determined by how long this lasts. We need to get back to the table as soon as possible and we're prepared to do that.''
The shipbuilder's latest offer - a three-year contract the company said would increase an average production worker's wage and benefit package from $41,000 to $48,000 a year - roughly doubled a pay proposal from last week, but its increases are about half what the union requested.
The average pay for union workers is $32,000 a year, said Dale Hartford, a union representative on the negotiating committee.
But pay was not the main sticking point for the shipyard's highly skilled workers, who fear that cross-training provisions of the contract would weaken the value of the specialized work force and lead to layoffs.
''This is about their ability to lay off as many people as they can,'' insisted welder Dennis Campbellton.
The last strike against Bath Iron Works was a 99-day walkout in 1985.
Bath Iron Works is a subsidiary of General Dynamics. The company's marine division, which includes Bath Iron Works, Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., and NASSCO in San Diego, Calif., accounts for a quarter of General Dynamics' profits, analysts said.
On the Net:
Bath Iron Works: http://www.biw.com
General Dynamics: http://www.generaldynamics.com
Machinists union: http://www.iamaw.org/