Sparrows Point to call back 180 Bethlehem pact would end furloughs, allow union to name board member

August 04, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

About 180 furloughed workers would be called back to work at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point steel mill under a job-security provision contained in the tentative contract reached between the company and steel workers, according to a top union official.

"Everybody comes back, and nobody gets laid off," the union official, David Wilson, director of United Steelworkers of America, District 8, said in explaining the arrangement.

Along with new restrictions on layoffs, Bethlehem has, for the first time, agreed to a far-reaching agreement that gives labor officials a role in how the company is run, including having a representative on the corporate board.

"It's a major step for the company and the union," Mr. Wilson said. "It's going to be a different world for management."

The groundbreaking agreements are part of a tentative contract reached Sunday between the union and Bethlehem. The contract, which must be approved by union members, mirrors agreements reached at Inland Steel Industries and National Steel Corp. A vote by union members is expected within a few weeks.

In addition to giving Bethlehem's workers greater job security, the agreement would, as of Oct. 1, restore workers who are on layoff status at Sparrows Point.

Mr. Wilson said the plant would be able to absorb the recalled employees because many active workers have been awaiting the new contract, which increases pension benefits, before retiring.

Even though Sparrows Point has shrunk over the past decade -- to 5,600 workers, from 11,000 in 1983 -- a Bethlehem spokesman, Henry Von Spreckelsen, credited normal attrition and incentives for early retirement for reducing the number of layoffs in recent years.

There are no workers on layoff status, he said, at the company's plants in Burns Harbor, Ind., and Lackawanna, N.Y.

Under the agreement, Bethlehem, based in Bethlehem, Pa., will be able to lay off workers only under specific "disasters," according to a company explanation of the program obtained by The Sun.

Among these disasters are:

* The permanent closing of the Sparrows Point or Burns Harbor steel mills.

* A petition filed by the company for reorganization or liquidation.

* Financial difficulties that represent "a clear and present danger to the company's viability."

* A strike by union members.

The company can also ask the union for a mutual suspension of the agreement for reasons like equipment repair or natural disasters.

Instead of using layoffs to adjust its work force, Bethlehem agreed to reduce employment through attrition -- workers who retire, quit or die.

Besides job security, the union gained a greater say in how the company is run. The contract calls for the creation of labor-management committees that will exist on the corporate, plant and shop floors. Those committees, consisting of an equal number of management and labor officials, will be involved in such management issues as how to use the work force more efficiently.

Union officials on the committee will have access to confidential company material involving pricing, marketing, capital spending, cash-flow forecasts and other aspects of the company's business plan.

Although management has the right to ignore the recommendations of the committees, Mr. Wilson said, "They would do it at their peril because no one would cooperate with them anymore."

In addition, the union would be able to choose a representative to sit on Bethlehem's 15-person board of directors. That representative, however, cannot be a union official.

Although similar power-sharing arrangements have been tried at Chrysler Corp. and Eastern Airlines Inc., the agreements at Bethlehem, Inland and National represent the first time that such a large segment of one industry has adopted the arrangement, according to Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It's a bold gamble by both sides," he said.

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