Yard bidder asks big cuts union angry

'I think it's sad that they insult us,' one worker says

A hit of nearly $8 an hour

WHX says its offer would end the custom of long layoffs

March 06, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

WHX Corp., the sole company negotiating to buy BethShip Inc., is seeking deep concessions from shipyard workers, union leaders told their members last night.

At a raucous meeting crowded with hundreds of yard workers, union leaders said WHX wants cuts in wages, pension benefits, vacations and other areas worth almost $8 an hour.

"I think it's sad that they insult us with this kind of proposal," said Gary Sullivan, an electrician. "It's a dangerous, dirty, nasty place to work, and we busted our humps over the last 15 years to make it a success."

Union members appeared strongly opposed to the WHX proposal, many of them at one point shouting "no concessions."

The 700 shipyard workers represented by Local Lodge S-33 of the Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers of America are paid an average of $13.47 an hour. With benefits, their compensation is about $21 an hour.

WHX gave union leaders its proposal Friday.

Earlier yesterday, Paul Bucha, a WHX director, said the company's proposal would end the yard's recent tradition of long layoffs.

"If we are successful in purchasing the yard, it is our intent that workers will have a job every day of the week, every week of the year and every year," he said. "I think people will earn more, work more and get more."

WHX Corp. wants to buy the Sparrows Point yard from Bethlehem Steel Corp. for about $27 million, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

The ability of the union and WHX to reach an agreement could influence the fate of the shipyard. "We feel that we have to have an agreement with the workers in order to operate the yard," Bucha said yesterday. "Absent that, you can't plan."

At the meeting last night, one worker asked Local President Murphy Thornton if WHX might simply shut down the yard and hire new workers.

"That won't happen," Thornton snapped.

He said the union would simply organize any new workers into the local.

Bethlehem chose to negotiate with WHX Corp. over two other prospective buyers of the yard, which Bethlehem has said will be closed if it is not sold. One of those rivals, Baltimore Orioles chief executive Peter Angelos, has not ruled out increasing his $20.5 million offer for the yard should the WHX Corp. deal fall through.

WHX Corp. of New York is in the fifth month of a strike by 4,500 workers at its Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The Wheeling-Pittsburgh workers are demanding the type of traditional pension that BethShip workers have -- a defined-benefit plan that guarantees a set monthly payment based on a worker's years of service.

Under Wheeling-Pittsburgh's defined contribution plan, the company makes contributions based on the hours an employee works, and benefits for the employee depend on investment returns.

WHX would eliminate BethShip's pension plan, replacing it with a 401(k) retirement plan.

Union officials said WHX's other proposals include:

Wage cuts averaging $1 an hour.

Reduced vacations.

Reduction in the night shift differential from 75 cents an hour to 40 cents.

Unlimited subcontracting rights.

Reduction in annual paid holidays from 13 to eight.

Elimination of seniority rights during layoffs.

Increases in workers' share of health care costs.

A five-year contract with no pay raise.

"What does McDonald's offer?" shouted one worker.

Union officials said they will offer a counter-proposal to WHX on Monday.

Holding up a copy of the union's agreement with BethShip, Thornton said, "Our proposal, for openers, is to start here."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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