In a vote that could shape the future of Bethlehem Steel's ailing Sparrows Point Shipyard, union workers narrowly approved two-year contract yesterday, giving the company the labor peace it needs to win a crucial contract.
The 164-128 vote reflected a division in the union, whether to approve a contract one year early to help the company land a contract building underwater tunnel sections for a Boston highway, or to bargain further and hope to recover losses from a four-month strike in 1989.
The old contract was to expire July 17, 1992, but Bethlehem told the union it needed a new labor agreement to preclude a possible strike in order to bid on the tunnel fabrication project, which will provide hundreds of sorely needed jobs over 18 months.
Work has been infrequent. Only 100 out of 1,300 members of Local S-33, Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, were employed last week. Scarcely 200 members worked the 19 weeks required last year to qualify for full vacation pay.
"We need the steady work, and we got some good improvements in this contract for everybody," said Murphy M. Thornton, the local president who pushed for ratification.
The contract, which runs through July 16, 1993, calls for a 45-cent hourly raise next July, a $100 signing bonus, improved pension benefits, expanded dental coverage and easier qualifications for vacation benefits.
A 60-cent raise under the old contract increased the hourly base wage to $12.52 last month.
BethShip, Sparrows Point Yard, -- the last of a half-dozen shipyards that operated here two decades ago -- had no chance to win the large contract without the new labor pact, Mr. Thornton said.
At a yard where yearlong layoffs are not uncommon, where there is little prospect of ever building a new ship again, and where ships irregularly put in for quick repairs, Mr. Thornton said the tunnel section project is essential to keeping the yard open.
"You can't get the [tunnel] contract for the company, that's their business," objected Oscar Evans, a vocal opponent of the labor agreement. "Our business is to get that extra dollar for the people who work there."
Further negotiations would put pressure on the employer to produce a better contract, he argued. "We lost a lot in 1989 and now's the time to make it back," said Mr. Evans, a 23-year machinist who worked fewer than half the weeks in 1990.
Winning the tunnel contract will not guarantee jobs for many members, whose crafts are not needed for that work, Mr. Evans said. It's not the first time the employer has tied its contract demands to the tentative promise of new work, he added.
But William Allen, a tool repairman who has been laid off since October and who is three years shy of retirement, saw the new contract as his best chance of getting back to work.
"It's no kind of way to live," he said of the long periods of unemployment. "I hope this will get us back on the right track," he said, although adding that congressional action is needed in the long run to require U.S. ships to be serviced in U.S. shipyards.
"This is a feast-or-famine business," Mr. Thornton admitted. Two ships arrived this weekend for repairs, which means that as many as 600 employees might be working on a given day, he noted. "They need painters, they'll [use] every painter and everyone who was ever a painter and their grandsons, too, and then they won't be working again for a long time."
BethShip gave up building new ships in 1989 to concentrate on repairs and conversions.
The strike in 1989 and its unsatisfactory conclusion for the union paved the way for a harder bargaining position this time, said executive secretary Lonnie Vick Jr. "This time, we weren't making concessions."
Mr. Evans disagreed. "We gave away concessions then; now we are stronger, and we should have gotten them back."
William Gignac, a Bethlehem spokesman, said yesterday that the company's prospects for winning the tunnel fabrication contract were "enhanced" by the union's approval.