After initial success in converting from new construction to repairs, Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point shipyard has suffered through a sharp decline in its business in the last few months that has forced the company to lay off most of its workers.
Just a year ago the shipyard was enjoying more ship repair business than it could handle and was trying to expand its work force. In a May 25, 1990, letter meant to persuade former Sparrows Point workers to return to the yard, General Manager David Watson wrote, "Our transition to primarily a repair and conversion yard is proving successful: We have 5 ships in the yard now and are busily booking more to replace them as they are completed. Our future is beginning to look brighter than it has in a long time."
Today there is not a ship being repaired at Sparrows Point. The last vessel departed three weeks ago, and no other contracts are in hand. A spokesman for Bethelehem said the yard has three bids out for work that would be done in the next two months. But there is no guarantee Sparrows Point will win any of them.
"Nothing is firm," William J. Gignack, the Bethlehem spokesman, said.
Mr. Watson declined an interview request, but Lonnie Vick, executive secretary of Local 33 of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, said that there has been very little work at Sparrows Point for months.
"It's depressed, very depressed," he said.
Employment at the yard peaked last summer at about 1,500 hourly and supervisory workers, he said. The company made big cuts in the work force late last year and early this year, and now only about 250 workers -- about 150 hourly and 100 supervisors -- remain, Mr. Vick said.
"We are a victim of the Persian Gulf war," Mr. Vick believes.
To move huge quantities of military equipment to the Persian Gulf, the government used all available ships. "Anything that could float, they were put into service," Mr. Vick said. The need to keep the cargo moving forced the government to postpone all but emergency repairs.
Michael W. Moss, general manager for Phillyship of Baltimore, a ship repair company, agreed with Mr. Vick that the crisis in the Persian Gulf hurt the market for the kind of drydock work that is at the heart of Sparrows Point's business.
"All the scheduled drydocks have been postponed until a lull can LTC occur," he said.
Eventually the drought in drydock work should end. "The government knows these ships do need drydocking," Mr. Moss said. "There are things to bid on. Many of them aren't going to be performed until later this summer or fall."