Bethlehem, union reach agreement Shipbuilders vote Friday on pact


Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the shipbuilders union reached a tentative agreement on a new contract yesterday, potentially ending an 11-day-old strike against the Sparrows Point shipyard.

The two sides, joined by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd-Md., and federal mediator Leo Gant, negotiated until 1 a.m. yesterday to reach the proposed contract, which calls for the creation of a joint union-management "competitiveness committee" to help the troubled yard cut costs and find new business.

Neither side would release other details of the proposed contract, saying they wanted to wait until the approximately 1,000 members of the union vote on the proposal. That vote is scheduled for Friday morning.

Union leaders said yesterday that they would recommend passage of the contract.

"Nobody wants to be on strike today," said Robert Thayer, grand lodge representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers/Industrial Union of Marine and Shipyard Workers.

The shipbuilders' strike began midnight July 17, two days after the members of Lodge 33 overwhelmingly rejected a company offer of a $950 signing bonus in return for a wage freeze and the elimination of a 45-cents-an-hour guaranteed bonus.

The company said it wanted to replace the guaranteed bonus with a profit-sharing plan because its labor costs were too high, making the yard uncompetitive.

From a high of about 1,200 workers, employment at the yard, known as BethShip, sank to about 600 the week before the strike as the yard was nearing completion of its work on the Boston Harbor tunnel. The yard currently has only two contracts to repair ships, according to the company.

Although the two sides had been negotiating off and on since the strike began, negotiations intensified Saturday, said Earle K. Shawe, an attorney who represented BethShipin the negotiations.

Despite the proposed settlement, union members were expected to continue picketing into Friday, said William Richardson, president of the Baltimore local.

If the members approve the contract, work could resume at the yard by Friday's afternoon shift, he said.

Mrs. Bentley said she, too, hoped the workers will approve the contract because she feared the strike would kill the last major shipyard in Baltimore.

"We have to do everything we can to strengthen our industrial base. It has been eroding far too rapidly," she said.

If the workers approve the pact, she said, the yard might be able to keep a job repairing a ship that will require 30,000-person hours of labor.

In addition, a quick settlement could convince that ship's owner to send in a sister ship.

Those two jobs could provide several months' work for up to 300 workers, she said.

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