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Baltimore's Sinking Shipyard


A scant year ago, employment at the BethShip shipyard in Sparrows Point neared 1,200 workers, the highest in four years, as craftsmen hustled to fabricate a $60 million underwater highway tunnel for Boston Harbor and rebuild a $24 million Navy dry dock.

But as 1,000 members of the shipbuilders union went on strike last week, rejecting a three-year wage freeze proposal, only half of them were working and the future looked dismal with no new contracts in hand.

The Bethlehem Steel Corp. division is the last of a half-dozen shipyards operating here only two decades prior, a struggling survivor depending on sporadic repair jobs and non-maritime projects. The union struck four years ago, and BethShip switched from shipbuilding to repairs and conversions. Workers agreed in 1991 on an early labor contract to solidify the Boston tunnel bid. Meanwhile, non-union subcontractors help to trim costs on these scarce projects.

A continued strike could easily mean the death of the last Baltimore shipyard, says Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, an aggressive advocate of the U.S. maritime industries, who has tried to mediate a labor accord. That is a sadly realistic prediction, a reflection of the loss of over half the U.S. shipbuilding capacity in a mere dozen years and Bethlehem's lack of hope for the yard's economic future.

Unionized workers refused to give up the 45-cent hourly profit-sharing increase they got in 1991. They doubt the company's claim of losing money, and they do not believe the walkout will finally close down the admittedly shaky operations.

Given the flight of the maritime industry from the United States, for repairs as well as for shipbuilding and flag registration, the Sparrows Point shipyard is competing for pieces of an ever smaller pie. This has long been a feast or famine industry, but typical year-long layoffs are lengthening and recalls are for shorter periods. The industry's revival may ultimately depend on federal requirements that U.S. ships be repaired in U.S. shipyards.

Still, hundreds of jobs could be lost if the shipyard is closed. That would be a loss not only for the union but for others who depend on their spending. We urge both sides to make a renewed effort to reach an agreement that will forestall closing the book on Baltimore's shipbuilding history and on another important industrial employer.

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