Shipyard workers to strike Union rejects no-raise contract

July 16, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer Staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

BethShip workers voted late last night to strike rather than accept a 42-month contract that offered no raise, but held out the possibility of profit-sharing.

Picketing at BethShip -- formerly known as the Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point shipyard -- is expected to begin at midnight, when the current contract covering about 1,000 workers expires.

Seven hours earlier, Bethlehem Steel Corp. had announced that a tentative contract had been reached by negotiators for the company and Lodge S-33 of the Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers of America/International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (AFL-CIO).

Company spokesman Ted Baldwin said last night that he had no comment on the reported 491-153 vote against the contract "until I hear from our people."

Bob Pemberton, business agent for the union's district office who took part in the talks, said he never doubted the outcome. He said the workers could not accept a 42-month agreement without a raise -- a contract that also eliminated the current agreement's "profit-sharing clause" that guaranteed the workers an extra 45 cents an hour -- even if the company does not make a profit.

The company offered the possibility of profit-sharing in the new proposal -- as much as $3 an hour by the third year of the contract -- but no guarantee, Mr. Pemberton said. It also offered two ratification bonuses totaling $950, and "the best" pension proposal the company had ever made, he said. He said workers are more concerned with wages than retirement benefits.

After the union leadership voted against the contract last Friday, Mr. Pemberton said the lodge contacted Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, on Monday, hoping she could convince the company to improve its offer before it was placed before the membership.

Mark Howard, a mechanic and former shop steward who has worked at Sparrows Point for a decade, said the main point of disagreement is the lack of a raise during the first three years of the 42-month contract, and the fact that a 50-cent-per-hour wage increase would not have taken effect until July 1996.

A union letter handed to workers entering Steelworkers Hall last night said the company had made several improvements in the package since the leadership's vote -- including a signing bonus of $450 payable in January, in addition to the immediate $500 payment already in the proposal. But in adding the January bonus, the company eliminated the 50-cent wage increase it had proposed to take effect in 1996.

Another late change provided the right of arbitration after 24 months to seek renegotiation of wages if the profit-sharing plan failed to result in "any earned payments of at least 75 cents in a quarter," the letter said.

"Even though the contract does not include everything we wanted . . . your negotiators unanimously agreed this is the best possible contract that we can negotiate at this time."

Mrs. Bentley, reached at home early today, expressed disappointment at the vote.

"I assumed they were going to accept it," she said of the shipyard workers. "The union negotiators had accepted the terms and both the union leaders and company today felt . . . that the worst was over.

"The facts of life are that the shipbuilding industry in this country is in a very precarious position, and the Sparrows Point shipyard is probably more at the precipice than any others."

To stay afloat, she said the company has to remain competitive with shipyards in Alabama and Jacksonville, Fla., "which are going all out to get whatever business they can. Those yards are working together and have underbid Sparrows Point."

Two years ago, the company and union reached agreement on new labor contract a year early to improve the chance of winning a $60 million job to build tunnel sections for a highway under Boston Harbor.

BethShip won the job, which is now nearing completion.

Several months later, the Navy followed by awarding BethShip a contract worth more than $25 million for the overhaul of the Sustain, a floating dry dock that was based at the Norfolk Naval Base.

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