Bethlehem Steel Corp. shipyard employees returned to work yesterday after a deeply divided union voted to end a two-week strike at the Sparrows Point yard and accept a new contract.
By a vote of 352-226, Lodge 33 of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipyard Workers accepted a three-year contract that calls for the equivalent of a wage freeze for two years, additional profit sharing, a signing bonus and a new union-management committee.
Except for the new productivity committee, the contract was similar to the proposal the union rejected on July 15.
This contract, however, rolls a 45-cent-an-hour "guaranteed bonus" that the workers currently receive into the wages, raising the hourly pay to between $10.83 and $12.92. And it promises a 50-cent-an-hour pay raise in August of 1995 if the workers don't collect at least 25 cents an hour in a new profit-sharing plan over the next two years.
The new contract was tentatively approved by company and union officials early Tuesday morning, after intensive negotiations aided by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, and federal mediator Leo Gant.
"I'm just glad it's over," said a visibly overwrought William Richardson, president of the local, which is a part of the International Association of Machinists.
Some workers, he acknowledged, wanted to stay on strike through the weekend so that the company would also face the pressure of a threatened Steelworker strike.
The Steelworkers are negotiating a new three-year contract with Bethlehem, which is the nation's second-largest steelmaker, and have threatened to begin striking if a settlement isn't reached when the contract expires at midnight tonight .
But Mr. Richardson said he was glad the shipbuilders' strike was settled because "they might have forgotten all about us" as the pressure to settle the Steelworkers contract grew.
Officials at BethShip, as the local division is known, said yesterday they were "pleased and encouraged" that the contract had been ratified.
Last week, BethShip President David Watson sent a letter to the approximately 1,000 striking shipbuilders saying that the work stoppage and demands for higher wages might doom the shipyard.
Mr. Watson said that although the wage rates at BethShip are at or below the national average of $12.90 an hour, the shipyard is having trouble winning bids because its labor cost, including benefits, adds up to nearly $4 more than the national average of $17 an hour.
"The survival of the shipyard was at stake in this strike," said Earle Shawe, an attorney who represented the company in labor negotiations.
The shipyard currently has only one ship, the Gus Darnell, in its docks for repair, he said. But that ship alone will provide 30,000 man-hours of work.
And now that the strike has been settled, BethShip can "go out and hustle new work," Mr. Shawe said. "We will be fighting for our life."
But many workers said that they were going back to work grudgingly, angry about the wage freeze and skeptical about the new union-management committee.