WHX continues negotiating to buy BethShip yard Firm is bargaining with the owners, not workers' union

Shipbuilding

March 14, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Signaling a readiness to buy the BethShip Inc. Sparrows Point shipyard without a labor agreement, WHX Corp. yesterday continued negotiations with the yard's owner, Bethlehem Steel Corp.

"We aren't walking away," WHX Director Paul Bucha said in a telephone interview from Bethlehem's Pennsylvania headquarters. "No one is going to the union for permission to see who owns this facility."

Murphy Thornton, president of the International Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America local that represents BethShip's 900 workers, criticized WHX for going forward just two days after a collapse in talks between the union and WHX.

"I think it points to their arrogance in not trying to sit down and bargain with the union in good faith," Thornton said.

Thornton, who is urging Bethlehem to seek another buyer, also said the workers were exploring the possibility of making their own bid for the yard.

Bethlehem Steel, meanwhile, sought to dampen speculation that the yard might be sold to any other buyer. "We are continuing to negotiate with WHX," Bethlehem spokesman Art Roth said. "We have identified them as a qualified buyer. There's no change in the basic situation in whom we're dealing with."

WHX has offered Bethlehem about $27 million for the yard. Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who had offered about $20 million, has said he might re-emerge as a prospective buyer if WHX pulls out. Angelos couldn't be reached yesterday. Richard Singer, a developer who was part of Angelos' group, said he planned to discuss the situation with him yesterday.

Asked if Bethlehem would close the yard if it's not sold to WHX, Roth said that he could not add anything to the company's statement Wednesday that the yard faces closure if it's not sold.

In the statement, Bethlehem said it was issuing a notice of a "planned permanent shutdown" because of the breakdown in negotiations Tuesday between WHX and the union. Federal legislation requires employers to notify workers at least 60 days before plant closures. Bethlehem also said the company is limiting the yard's work unless a sales agreement "can be promptly completed." WHX has said the yard is accepting only work that can be completed by the end of June.

Thornton, the union local president, yesterday called the shutdown notice serious and said it added urgency to reach a deal -- "but not as drastic as what" WHX is proposing.

"With the kind of wages and benefits they're talking about, it would not be worth buying a car, paying insurance and going to work," he said.

The union contends that WHX wants concessions worth $8 an hour from workers, who earn about $13.47 an hour in wages and $8.73 in benefits. Bucha has dismissed that estimate. He has declined to give his own estimate but said WHX's package includes profit sharing and would result in more hours of work and higher pay.

Yesterday, Bucha characterized the company's talks with the union not as negotiations but merely part of a business plan.

"There is nobody to have a contract with," he said. "We don't have any employees, therefore we can't negotiate with anyone. We are now still pushing on the process of the purchase of the buildings, the land and the machinery because that's all Bethlehem is willing to sell.

"And we are the buyer."

But Bucha also said WHX would not buy BethShip Inc. and operate it as a nonunion shipyard. "We're not nonunion," he said. "That means we're not going to operate a nonunion shop."

He said WHX was presenting a plan to make BethShip, which has had frequent layoffs, the top yard in the nation. "We thought a worker would prefer to work at a very competitive wage for 2,000=plus hours a year in preference to a part-time job with a declining future," Bucha said. "I guess we're wrong."

He said WHX might look at other uses of the shipyard. "It's a great location with twice the amount of land needed for a shipyard," he said. "We have to look and see what can be done with that."

He said the possibilities include leasing BethShip to another yard or building a steel processing operation. "Right now, the only thing we know is that we have the option of owning a shut-down shipyard," he said.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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