Layoffs become all too familiar Westinghouse workers face fifth loss of jobs

September 23, 1995|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Sad, submissive, and some a little surly, people who work at Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s huge Linthicum campus faced their fifth wave of layoffs in four years yesterday with a simple refrain: We knew it was coming.

They have been down this road four times before. First the rumors, then a vague announcement that big layoffs are coming, then weeks of work before the bell finally tolls.

"It was a little down, but everyone is used to it by now," said Ron Schinault, a facility draftsman who has spent 18 years with Westinghouse. People will work through their distractions, he said.

"You're afraid not to," he said. "If you don't, they can say you're not doing anything."

But this time, some say, there is a difference. This time, the Linthicum-based Electronic Services Group isn't getting cut because another part of Westinghouse blew a $1 billion on bad real estate loans, as the company admitted happened in 1991, or because the Pentagon pulled the plug on a specific contract.

This time, they understand Electronic Systems Group President Francis J. Harvey must make the division smaller to compete in the post-Cold War defense era.

And they are trying to get ready.

"We have to change," said John Aberg, who works in the research and development area. "I'm really impressed with Fran Harvey as a leader. I think he's more interested in reorganizing for competition than in bulk layoffs. If anyone can point us in the right direction, it's him."

The issue is as simple as the chart in the current company newspaper, which sits on the reception desk of Westinghouse buildings near BWI, not far from Mr. Harvey's letter announcing the job cuts.

Defense spending was 57 percent of the federal budget in the 1950s and 43 percent during the Vietnam War. It was 27 percent during the Reagan-era defense buildup.

It will be 13 percent by 1999. No Soviet Union, no Cold War, not so many jobs.

Dave Cecil, an 18-year Westinghouse veteran who manages the Linthicum plant's suggestion program, said workers throughout the company have long understood that the basic arithmetic means wrenching change.

"People are aware we have to be competitive," he said. "It's not happy, but these aren't happy times."

But if the reason for the job cuts is fairly simple, the task defense workers face in finding new jobs is complicated.

The defense business, highly technical and dependent on the federal government as a customer, develops skills in workers that are difficult to place elsewhere, said Michael A. Conte, director of the University of Baltimore's regional economic studies program.

"When you look at a chemist, or a physicist or an engineer, companies tend to be extremely cognizant of the details of the work they did: a lot of it is not transferable," Mr. Conte said. "There's not a lot of work in this neck of the woods that these people are qualified for. You look at the type of companies that would be in the market for their type of labor, and none of them are growing."

About a quarter of the workers in Linthicum are represented by three different unions, but officials of all three said they didn't have any details of how the layoffs were to work.

In the case of Gladys Greene, president of Local 1805 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, that was enough to make a body surly.

"If you put that in the paper," she said in response to a question about morale, "I'll come and break your face."

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