Point union seeks to halt sale Workers allege bias, failure to bargain in good faith

Shipbuilding

March 18, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

The Sparrows Point shipyard workers' union yesterday filed charges of unfair labor practices against Bethlehem Steel Corp., the yard's owner, and WHX Corp., the prospective buyer, and asked the federal government to block the sale of the yard.

In charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board in Baltimore, the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers accused both companies of failing to bargain in good faith and discriminating against the yard's union work force. The union is seeking an injunction to block the sale of the BethShip Inc. yard.

"We want stoppage of the deal until workers at BethShip are given their rights," said Allison Beck, general counsel for the union.

Bethlehem Steel spokesman Art Roth said only, "Bethlehem has received the charges and is studying them."

Paul Bucha, a WHX Corp. director negotiating with Bethlehem, said he didn't understand the charges. He also described as inaccurate the union's account of negotiations with WHX. Bucha said WHX is continuing to negotiate its purchase of the yard.

"My posture is that this is silly," he said.

"We should be sitting down and talking about how to make this work."

WHX is the sole company negotiating to buy the shipyard, which is to be closed if it is not sold. Bethlehem has told workers that the closure will occur in the middle of June. Talks between WHX and the union collapsed one week ago today.

The union said WHX has insisted on cutting wages and benefits by $8 an hour.

Workers at the yard earn about $13.47 an hour and fringe benefits worth $8.73.

Employment at the yard, which depends on outside repair contracts, recently increased from about 700 to 900.

Estimate called 'laughable'

Bucha called the $8 estimate excessive and "laughable." He said the union refused to consider any proposal other than its current contract with Bethlehem Steel. He said WHX's offer includes profit-sharing and that WHX would boost from about 1,200 to 2,000 the average number of hours worked a year.

Neither the union nor WHX has released details of its financial analysis.

WHX contends that changes are necessary to make the yard profitable. The union says the yard can make a profit with its current wages and benefits.

Bethlehem doesn't release the yard's financial statements. According to a confidential memorandum, however, the yard reported earnings before interest and taxes of $2.4 million in the first nine months of 1996.

In 1995, the yard reported a loss of $1.7 million.

In its complaint, the union said WHX terminated negotiations after one brief bargaining session. Jim Lautar, a grand lodge representative, said in a statement filed with the NLRB that WHX left the bargaining table shortly after receiving the union's first counter proposal.

"We were still there and available to talk," Lautar said. "They thanked us for our time and left."

Bucha said he was not in the room when the talks collapsed and that other officials were handling the talks.

But he said the union wanted to use Bethlehem Steel's contract as a focal point.

"We're not interested in talking about the Bethlehem Steel contract," he said.

"We're not Bethlehem Steel. I am ready to talk to them if they want to talk about our proposal."

In its complaint against WHX, the union also said the New York-based company agreed to hire the "vast majority" of the union work force and later withdrew the pledge when the union requested "good-faith bargaining" on a labor agreement.

Lautar quoted WHX's attorney, Joseph E. O'Leary, as saying that he would be "dumbfounded" if WHX didn't hire the majority, if not the "vast majority" of workers. Lautar said O'Leary and the union's lawyer had discussed procedures to recommend a collective bargaining agreement.

But after talks collapsed, Lautar said, Bucha characterized WHX's contact with the union not as negotiations but as part of a business plan. Lautar also said WHX continued to negotiations to buy the yard, even without a labor agreement.

Bucha declined to comment on the details of the charges, referring questions to O'Leary. O'Leary said he hadn't seen details of the complaint, so he could not offer a full response to the charges. "It's not factually correct," O'Leary said.

"It doesn't ring true to me."

Other allegations

In a separate NLRB charge, the union said Bethlehem Steel has withheld "critical information" on the sale of BethShip -- including the sales agreement with WHX -- and insisted on an "unreasonable time constraints for bargaining."

The union also said Bethlehem Steel threatened "that it would close the shipyard if the union did not enter into a concessionary collective bargaining agreement with WHX Corp."

Bethlehem has said it is negotiating only with WHX, but has declined to discuss whether it would consider other buyers if WHX's proposal collapses.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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