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Area Bethlehem, GM plants gird for rail strike


The looming railroad strike, which could start tomorrow, would hurt two important local manufacturing operations, company officials said.

The companies -- Bethlehem Steel Corp. and General Motors Corp. -- are making contingency plans to bring in materials by other forms of transportation. However, both expect little disruption at their local factories if the strike lasts only a day or two.

Other major companies, such as Westinghouse Electric Corp., McCormick & Co. Inc. and Armco Inc., primarily rely on trucks to supply materials and don't expect to be affected by any strike.

CSX Transportation Inc. and Consolidated Rail Corp., which provide freight service in the area, are threatened by strikes.

Amtrak, the national passenger service, also faces the midnight strike deadline. But because each company is negotiating with a different set of unions, how each railroad is affected will be determined by which unions strike.

Negotiations among several unions and the nation's railroads continued yesterday.

"They are very active and we feel that is a good sign," said Jay S. Westbrook, a spokesman for CSX, the dominant railroad in the Baltimore area.

A national railroad strike would cost the economy $50 million a day initially and $1 billion daily after four weeks, the rail industry estimated. Because rail strikes are so costly, the federal government normally intervenes and stops a strike after a day or two.

A strike "would have an almost immediate impact," said Bethlehem Steel Corp. spokesman G. Ted Baldwin. Bethlehem, which operates the Sparrows Point mill in Baltimore County, uses an average of 3,000 rail cars daily to carry raw materials, semifinished and finished products among its plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

At Sparrows Point, the operation relies on the delivery of 300 rail cars of coke weekly to keep its blast furnaces operating, Mr. Baldwin said. Coke is a coal product used in the production of iron.

But the Baltimore County plant's stockpile of coke could be used for a couple of weeks, Mr. Baldwin said. If a strike lasted longer than that, the company could bring in coke with barges and ships as it does with iron ore and other raw materials.

GM's assembly plant on Broening Highway depends on trains to bring in about 55 percent of its materials, such as engines, transmissions and axles, said Terry W. Youngerman, personnel director for the plant.

If the strike only lasts a few days, the worst that would happen would be reducing the plant's two 10-hour shifts to 8 hours each, Mr. Youngerman said. But if a strike continued until Friday, the plant would be in a bind.

"The longer it goes, the more tenuous it becomes for us," he said.

Trucking companies could meet manufacturers' needs for a short period, but a long strike would be a strain, said Walter C. Thompson, executive vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association Inc.

"If you go three or four days, the industry is going to have to get itself together to pick up the slack," Mr. Thompson said.

A strike also would stop shipments to the three coal terminals in the Port of Baltimore. However, this would have little immediate effect on the operations because coal is delivered to the terminals weeks before it is loaded on a ship.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., which relies on coal shipments to fuel some of its power plants, does not expect problems because it already was stockpiling in anticipation of a possible February 1993 coal miners' strike.

Instead of its usual 50-day coal inventory, it has a 70-day supply, said BG&E; spokesman Arthur J. Slusark.

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