Negotiations between Bethlehem Steel Corp. and United Steelworkers of America continued beyond a midnight strike deadline, with the union agreeing to an hour-by-hour extension as long as talks continued.
"The momentum is in our favor," said Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the steelworkers. Because of the extension, pickets were not to go up at unless talks broke off, Mr. Hubbard said.
If a new agreement was not hammered out before negotiations ended early this morning, about 4,900 union workers at Bethlehem's Sparrows Point plant would possibly go on strike today -- in the first such company-wide steel strike since 1959.
That plant, which produces 3 million tons of steel annually, has a total work force of 5,500.
"The parties are negotiating with a very intense pace," Harry Spedden, a sub-district director for District 8 of the United Steelworkers of America, said late yesterday afternoon. "There is all sorts of activity going on."
If a strike occurs at Sparrows Point, it would come two days after the end of a strike by 1,000 workers at the adjoining shipyard.
A strike would also shut down Bethlehem's Burns Harbor, Ind., plant with 5,300 workers and a smaller Lackawanna, N.Y., operation with 700 workers. Plants in Bethlehem and Steelton, Pa., which have separate labor contracts, would not be affected by a strike.
The labor dispute comes at a critical juncture for both Bethlehem Steel and the steelworkers union.
Racked by three years of losses totaling more than $1.7 billion, Bethlehem Steel expects to break into the black during the current quarter. But those hopes would be dashed by an extended strike.
The United Steelworkers, whose ranks have been reduced by the job cuts among the major steelmakers, would be further hurt if a Bethlehem strike crippled the nation's second-largest steel company.
Bethlehem and the United Steelworkers have been negotiating since June 8, two days after an agreement was reached at Inland Steel Industries Inc. That agreement included a no-layoff clause and a 50-cent-an-hour wage increase over the life of the six-year contract.
Although that contract had served as a model for the two sides, there were sharp disagreements between Bethlehem and the union on medical insurance and pensions.
The company wants a managed care arrangement in which all the workers would be required to seek medical treatment from an approved list of health providers, according to David Wilson, a district director for the United Steelworkers.