Strikes Hit Ailing Shipyard Industry
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Recent strikes by unionized shipyard workers protesting contract cutbacks are symptoms of an ailing shipbuilding industry hit hard by overseas competition, management officials say.
But union leaders insist the workers are being penalized for poor management of the yards.
″You can build a ship more cheaply, by far, overseas,″ said Jed Babbin, vice president and general counsel for the Shipbuilders Council of America, which represents the nation’s 26 major shipyards.
The number of shipyards has been cut in half in the last four years with 25 yards already and General Dynamics planning to shut down its yard in Quincy, Mass., early next year, he said.
The commercial shipbuilding industry has grown in Japan and Korea, where workers are paid half or less than half of the average $12 an hour American shipyard workers earn, he said.
″We are facing a continuing diminution of the industry’s size due to the fact that there is no customer other than the Navy. We expect there will be a continued contraction of the industry,″ Babbin said. ″Those yards that are able to make headway through their labor contracts are more able to compete.″
Union officials say the major yards have plenty of work and are using the shipbuilding industry’s woes as an excuse to cut wages and benefits.
The yards should do a better job of controlling project costs and planning, said Clay Parton, vice president of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which represents about 20,000 shipyard workers.
″There are better ways of doing things in the way of management,″ he said. ″We feel like they have some blame. They have some responsibility.″
The union has made concessions, he said, when yards have proven their financial shakiness.
The Boilermakers local representing about 2,000 workers at Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock Corp., known as Norshipco, struck Aug. 15 over work schedule changes imposed in December.
At Bath Iron Works in Maine, 4,500 workers have been off the job since July 1 after rejecting a contract that called for a wage freeze and a lower pay scale for new employees.
About 50 ship repair workers at Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Beaumont, Texas, went on strike Monday after rejecting a management plan to cut wages by about $1.50 an hour.
Workers at the Norfolk yard have objected to new work schedules that require some employees to work on weekends with two weekdays off. Formerly, employees worked Monday through Friday and received overtime pay for working weekends.
Phil Bartley, international representative for the Boilermakers union, said no other shipyard in the country operates with such swing shifts.
″If it gets in this yard it will spread throughout Tidewater and probably up and down the East Coast,″ he said.
Al Hartnett, the company’s chief negotiator, said the schedule changes were necessary to keep the yard in business.
″It is time this union gave some thought to the welfare of Norshipco’s employees and the survival of their employment,″ he said.
″There’s no question the industry is not in the best shape in the world,″ Bartley said. ″This particular yard is loaded up with work and they have work booked for the next several months.″
Boilermakers union employees at Pennsylvania Shipbuilding Co. in Chester, Pa., recently accepted wage concessions, Hartnett said. But Bartley said those workers still earn a higher average wage than the Norshipco employees.