Beth Steel shipyard struggles but sees brighter day soon Yard's plight typifies that of U.S. shipbuilding industry.

December 06, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

It's been more than two years since a champagne bottle crashed against the hull of a ship and the rousing strains of "Anchors Aweigh" were played at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Sparrows Point.

The Navy oceanographic ship USNS Tanner, christened in October 1989, was the last vessel to be built there.

After that ship was launched, the 200-acre yard on the east side of the Patapsco River began to resemble a ghost town. One by one, buildings were closed. The work force dwindled.

The yard was converted to a ship repair and specialty construction facility.

The bands and confetti today seem far away, but recently the yard has had reason to celebrate. In October, BethShip won a $60 million contract to build tunnel sections for a highway beneath the Boston Harbor. A few weeks ago, the yard received a $25 million contract to refurbish a navy dry dock.

For the first time since the Tanner and its sister ship, the Maury, were built, the yard is hiring again. "Nineteen Ninety-two is looking better than the last five years," says Murphy Thornton, president of Local 33 of the Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers of America. An additional 300 to 400 workers will be needed at the yard next year.

While that is good news, the long-term future of the facility remains in question, and the sound of the crashing champagne bottle may never be heard there again.

The yard in some respects is symbolic of the nation's shipbuilding industry, which reached its heyday during World War II and has nearly shut down in the last 10 years in face of foreign competition.

At its peak during World War II, the Sparrows Point yard employed more than 8,600 workers. In the 1970s, the largest oil tankers of the day were launched from the yard. But with the decline of the shipbuilding industry, the number of workers dropped from about 3,000 a decade ago to an average of only 350 workers this year.

Larry Sims is the last of a legacy. His grandfather went to work at the Sparrows Point yard in the 1920s. In 1950, at age 18, his father started work there. His older brother began work at the yard in 1967. Sims followed them in 1974.

Now he is the only one in the family who remains. His grandfather retired. His father and brother left to pursue other businesses. Sims stays, working as a machinist when work is available. With 17 years at the yard, he is one of the junior men. Average length of service at the yard is 24 years.

"I'm not going nowhere," he declares.

This year, he worked about seven months. But when work is available, the money is good. Often he gets paid overtime.

He likes his job fixing the engines on ships that come into the yard for repairs. But he concedes the work is not as much fun as installing an engine on a new ship, and hearing the roar as it starts up for the first time.

That is a sound heard less frequently these days. Currently, only one commercial ship is under construction at a U.S. yard.

Legislation is now in Congress aimed at reviving America's shipbuilding industry by forbidding subsidized foreign ships to enter U.S. ports unless they have repaid their subsidies to their governments.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is convinced government action must be taken to save the industry.

"Shipbuilding has been part of Baltimore's history since the British settled Oldtown," Mikulski says.

She notes that the clipper ship was born in Baltimore and the city launched more World War II Liberty ships than any other port.

"Now we are in the 21st century, we need to make sure we have a maritime future," she says.

She says Congress is becoming concerned about American industries, such as shipbuilding. Nevertheless, if the bill emerges from committee, it won't do so until spring.

"We're at a disadvantage because many states don't have shipyards and don't feel some urgency," she says.

U.S. shipbuilders blame the demise of the industry on President Reagan's decision in 1981 to eliminate U.S. ship construction subsidies without getting similar concessions from overseas builders.

The lifting of the U.S. subsidies cost about a third of the jobs in American shipyards, according to the Shipbuilders Council of America.

About 100,000 people now work in commercial yards and 70,000 in Navy yards. Only eight facilities remain that are capable of making big ships, says John Stocker, president of the Shipbuilders Council.

The world's major shipbuilders are Japan, South Korea and Germany. About 30 percent of the commercial ships on order in 1990 were booked with Japan, 8 percent with South Korea, 9 percent with Germany. Only 0.2 percent were booked with the United States. The others were booked with various countries.

American shipbuilders contend that the decline of U.S. shipbuilding has jeopardized not only jobs, but also national security. During Operation Desert Storm, U.S.-built ships were so scarce that the Military Sealift Command had to rent ships from ** American allies to transport cargo to support troops in the Middle East.

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