Beth Steel warns yard will close Formal notice issued after talks collapse between union, WHX

60-day warning given

Prompt sale of site could stop shutdown, officials say

March 13, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Responding to a breakdown in talks between workers at its BethShip shipyard and a prospective buyer, Bethlehem Steel Corp. said yesterday it will close the Sparrows Point operation unless it is sold promptly.

In a brief statement, Bethlehem said it was issuing a federally required notice of a "planned permanent shutdown" because of the collapse Tuesday in negotiations between WHX Corp., the sole company negotiating to buy the yard, and the International Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America.

A minimum 60-day notice of such a closure is required under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act.

Bethlehem also said the yard, which employs 900 people, will only take orders for work that can be completed "within the time frame of its current order book unless a sales agreement can be promptly completed."

Bethlehem did not specify a date, but a WHX Corp. official said Tuesday that the yard is only taking work that can be completed by the end of June.

Gary Graham, a Bethlehem Steel spokesman, said the statement does not mean that a shutdown of the yard is inevitable.

"If we can sell it promptly, we won't shut it down," he said.

Graham also said the announcement was not a signal that Bethlehem would either sell the yard to WHX Corp. or close it. He said the company was seeking "a buyer."

WHX, which offered about $27 million for the yard, is the sole company negotiating for a purchase. Baltimore Orioles chief executive Peter Angelos, a losing bidder who offered about $20 million, has said he would consider another bid if WHX pulls out.

Yesterday's statement was the first time Bethlehem acknowledged that it was negotiating with WHX. Previously, Bethlehem had said only that it would close the yard if it couldn't be sold and that it hoped to reach an agreement by the end of March.

On Tuesday, after the talks collapsed, local union leaders said WHX was continuing to insist on concessions in wages and benefits worth $8 an hour from workers who on the average earn $13.47 an hour in wages and $8.73 an hour in fringe benefits.

The union urged Bethlehem to try to find another buyer.

Paul Bucha, a WHX director, called the $8 estimate "laughable" and said the company might buy the yard even if it does not have an agreement with workers. Bucha also predicted that the yard would be shut down if WHX did not buy it.

Bucha and Thornton could not be reached to comment on Bethlehem's statement, which was released yesterday evening.

WHX is in the fifth month of a strike by 4,500 members of the United Steelworkers of America at its Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel plants.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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