BethShip, Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point shipyard division, has reached tentative agreement a year early on a new contract with its union workers, a pact the struggling yard hopes will help it land a crucial contract later this year.
The yard, which has had little work in recent months, is pinning its hopes on winning a contract to build tunnel sections for a new highway to be built under Boston harbor.
The old labor contract would expire next July 17, raising the possibility of a work disruption in the middle of the tunnel project. And aside from the strike danger, BethShip was faced with bidding on a project without knowing what its labor costs would be for much of the construction period.
The new union contract, if ratified Saturday by the membership of Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America Local S-33, eliminates those uncertainties. "This puts the yard in a very good position," William Gignack, a spokesman for Bethlehem, said yesterday.
The tunnel contract, to be awarded later this year, would mean about 18 months of work for several hundred shipyard employees.
Murphy M. Thornton, president of Local S-33, and Lonnie Vick Jr., the local's executive secretary, said yesterday that they were amazed at the progress they were able to make on all major issues without the threat of a strike.
"We're not in a concessionary state," Mr. Vick said.
The condition of the shipyard, and therefore the union local, remains grave. There is so little work that during the last year, Mr. Thornton said, only about 200 union members qualified for full vacation benefits by logging the minimum 750 hours -- the equivalent of less than 19 weeks of work.
Only about 100 of the 1,200 people represented by the local are currently working, Mr. Thornton said. The new contract would be a two-year agreement expiring July 16, 1993.
Union officials said the new contract will mean a 45-cent raise in the base wage of $12.52, effective next July. The contract also permits a shift to a new pension plan that would mean much more generous retirement benefits.
The two sides were unable to come to agreement when the last contract expired two years ago. The result was a long, bitter strike.
Mr. Thornton said the expected arrival at the yard of two ships next week should mean work for "a couple of hundred people for a week or two."
But the tunnel contract holds the best hope for some stability in employment to release workers from the constant cycle of layoffs and rehirings. "That's the key right now," Mr. Vick said.