Shipyard Blues : Naval Facility Jobs Fall to Record Low, Which Could Put $60-Million Dent in Area Economy

Times Staff Writer

As veteran shipyard director J. V. Gallagher discussed the sad state of the coun try's ship repair business, the 820-foot-long assault craft Pelileu towered to his left.

Before him, along Pier 1 in the heart of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, lay the World War II battleship Missouri, taken out of retirement at a cost of $475 million and just a week away from sea trials. Two piers away, work was continuing on the destroyer Buchanan.

But for now, that is all the work there is.

Only one of its three dry docks is being used. Of its five piers, one is in mothballs and two are being shared with the adjoining naval station. And within the 17 industrial shops at the sprawling Terminal Island shipyard, workers are noticeably absent.

"In fiscal year '68, during Vietnam, we had 100 ships in here," said Gallagher, the no-nonsense director of shipyard management and engineering. This year the yard will overhaul five.

After a year of morale-sapping layoffs and the departure of many skilled journeymen who sought security elsewhere, employment has fallen from 7,100 jobs to 5,900 today.

Second Largest Employer

That is the lowest level in the 43-year history of the shipyard, Long Beach's second largest employer behind Douglas Aircraft Co. Hundreds more layoffs are forecast for 1986 and probably for 1987. Today's work force contrasts with an average of about 7,000 workers for the last two decades, and peaks of about 8,600 during the Vietnam War and 16,000 workers at the end of World War II.

The effects of the shipyard slowdown are felt not only by the families of the displaced workers, but also by the Long Beach area economy, which stands to lose about $60 million in Navy spending this year alone.

The Long Beach shipyard, one of the smallest of the eight Navy facilities and one of two that cannot repair nuclear-powered ships, has fallen victim to a number of forces, say shipyard spokesmen for both labor and management.

Private shipyards, including the Todd Pacific Shipyards facility in San Pedro, are desperately seeking more Navy business because foreign shipyards have taken away virtually all their commercial business. (Employment at Todd has dropped from 5,800 in 1983 to 2,200 today.)

In particular, public and private West Coast yards have been hurt because their higher labor costs give East Coast and Gulf Coast yards an advantage in bidding for jobs. Also, a tight federal budget means less shipyard work for fewer workers nationwide this year.

'A Big Depression'

"We've got a big depression out here," said Ed Martin, president of the Long Beach shipyard's Local 285 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers.

"We're hurting," Martin said. "The motivation is really gone. The morale is gone. There's no work."

And Frank Rodriguez, president of the local Federal Employees Metal Trades Council, which represents 13 shipyard unions, said: "I think we'll see employment go below 4,800 over the next couple of years. If things don't change, we'll either see the shipyard close or go to being what they call a repair facility. It's like a fix-it shop."

The Navy has vowed not to close any of its eight shipyards, but it did cut 5,600 workers nationwide from a force of 78,000 in 1985 and says it will continue to streamline its shipyard operations. In last year's cutback, Long Beach was the hardest hit, losing 17% of its workers.

Gil Bond, the yard's industrial relations director, said he has "no idea" when the layoffs will stop. The shipyard could have as few as 5,300 workers by December, and that is without considering a possible $40-million, or 13.5%, shipyard budget reduction for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, Bond said.

That cut, which "has been bantered about but is not firm," would be Long Beach's share of an overall Navy belt-tightening, Bond said.

Cut Not Confirmed

Navy officials in Washington would not confirm the $40-million cut for Long Beach. But they did say the budget of the Navy section that runs shipyards and weapons stations will be reduced by 17.9% during the next fiscal year.

Even without further cuts, the $357 million the shipyard poured into the Long Beach-area economy last year through payroll, goods and services will be down to about $296 million this year, Gallagher said.

Most of that reduction will come from lost salaries for 715 permanent employees and 486 temporary employees who were cut or voluntarily left shipyard rolls last year after they were notified of the impending mandatory reduction in force.

"Some of our managers have said we're losing people who were not scheduled for the reduction in force," Bond said. "Some went to other jobs at the same (pay) levels. The reason probably was security."

Rodriguez, the metal trades council president, said, "A lot of guys also took early retirement, thereby saving other people's jobs."

And that, said Rodriguez, "means you're losing a highly skilled worker, and it plays hell with efficiency. Just the announcement that there's going to be a (reduction in force) plays hell. Guys don't want to finish a job and production normally drops."

General Agreement

Bond and Gallagher generally agreed with Rodriguez, but Gallagher added that none of the three ships overhauled last year was over budget or off schedule.

Hundreds of other shipyard employees, many hired as temporary workers for $7 to $11 an hour, had no choice about leaving their jobs.

For most of those workers, the layoffs began another period of waiting in a roller-coaster employment cycle that has spanned many years.

Vern Bradley, for example, has been hired and fired by the shipyard five times since 1982. Bradley, 50, a journeyman painter, said: "What else can I do? Jobs are hard to find."

Bradley has no immediate family and said he has been able to get by without too much trouble when times were tough.

For Geneva Dawson, who is eight months pregnant and mother of a 7-year-old daughter, the Dec. 7 layoff from her job as a pipe fitter's helper has meant a loss of independence and a change in the way she sees the world.

'Had My Own Place'

Dawson, 23, had been a permanent shipyard employee since shortly after graduating from Compton's Dominguez High School five years ago.

"I had my own place, and I figured I had a good thing," she said. "Now, I'm poor, broke and living in an overcrowded home."

Dawson and her daughter have been staying with relatives in Compton and Long Beach. She hopes to soon begin receiving about $150 a week in unemployment benefits. She had made about $400 a week.

Joblessness has also meant a collective tightening of belts for Fred Boatwright's family.

Boatwright, 29, his homemaker wife and four young children live in a one-bedroom Cedar Avenue apartment for which they pay $450 a month. "We'll eat a lot of zucchini, tacos and beans," he said.

As a temporary worker, Boatwright was not entitled to the 60-day notice the shipyard gives its permanent employees, so he was told he had no job just a week before the mass layoffs of early December.

'Hoping They'll Call Me'

"The temporaries work very hard, hoping they might keep some of us," Boatwright said. "I'm hoping they'll call me back. Each time I go back I think next time it might go in my favor."

Shipyard union officials, however, are cautioning that the downward cycle may not have an upward turn this time. "The way I look at it," Martin said of the boilermakers' union, "the people I've lost, I don't think I'll be getting them back."

Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), whose 42nd District includes both the naval and Todd shipyards, is more optimistic.

Lungren said the Long Beach yard is more vulnerable to closure than most of the other Navy facilities because it is small and has no nuclear-power repair capability.

"But in the long term," he said, "the Long Beach yard is in good shape."

That is so, he said, because the Reagan Administration's increase in Navy ships from about 450 in 1980 to a projected 600 means there will be more ships needing repair.

More Private Work Expected

But the increase in ships may not mean more overhauls each year, Gallagher said. The Navy has now decided to refurbish its ships every five years instead of every three, he said.

And Paul Burnsky, national president of the Washington-based Metal Trades Department, a union group which represents 650,000 workers, said he thinks more and more work will be shifted to private shipyards. "That's the whole direction they're going," he said.

Navy officials say that, in accordance with a 1970 law, the private yards will continue to get just 30% of Navy repair, with naval shipyards getting the rest. The same law says all new Navy ship construction shall be done at private yards.

The arrangement is supposed to ensure that the nation has enough shipyards, both public and private, to service its fleet during war.

In years with a heavy schedule of ship overhauls, Navy officials said, private yards can get more than 30% of the work. In other years, like 1985, the number of jobs are down and the naval shipyards need their full 70% of the work.

And, despite an occasional call in Congress for a 60-40 or 50-50 split of the Navy repair work, officials in the shipbuilding industry said they think the 70-30 ratio will be maintained.

Congress has ordered that repair jobs on four Navy ships be awarded through competitive bidding by both public and private yards this year. But M. Lee Rice, president of the Washington-based Shipbuilders Council of America, said that does not represent a shift toward open competition.

"They'll still be living by the 70-30 split," he said. "If the private sector wins those jobs, the Navy will balance that by taking other jobs away."

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