Facing A Nightmare, The Shipyard Has A Dream The Workers Are Hoping Against Hope The Yard Won't Close. "We Are Still A Shipyard In Denial," Said One.

Posted: January 31, 1993

Pat D'Amico has been squirreling away money and time. Charles McCulley's wife went back to work.

There's the electrician who yearns to be a paralegal, the ironworker who got a license to sell health insurance, and the clerk who returned to community college to take personnel courses.

Yet the changes many workers have made to their lives have been modest, half-hearted or invisible at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard - even though the possibility the yard will close - or change - looms as gray and ponderous as the mothballed fleet near its entrance.

D'Amico, McCulley and many of the roughly 6,700 other shipyard employees have, for the most part, stayed put.

"We are still," said D'Amico, "a shipyard in denial."

In denial and in confusion.

"It's an unbelievable decision (to close the yard), and because it's so unbelievable, you deny it," D'Amico said.

It was all of 19 months ago that a special independent federal panel recommended closing all but three scaled-back operations at the shipyard and Philadelphia Naval Base in South Philadelphia. Thirty-three other military installations nationwide were also slated for closing. The Cold War was over, and the U.S. military complex faced reduction.

Under the federal base-closure law, the phaseout is scheduled to begin this year. However, thanks in part to lobbying by the region's congressional delegation, the Philadelphia yard will remain open at least through 1995 to complete overhaul of the aircraft carrier USS Kennedy.

Whether that job will support the bulk of the workers now at the shipyard - or whether there will be layoffs - remains one of the questions workers face. The last time there were sizable layoffs was in 1972, near the end of the Vietnam war. Shipyard commander J.C. Bergner warned of a "reduction-in- force" late last year, citing severe cuts in naval-shipyard budgets and a decrease in ship-repair work. On-call and temporary employees have been laid off periodically in recent years. The last wave of 136 carpenters, painters, riggers and shipfitters started leaving last week. Some had been at the shipyard for years.

For many workers, though, the larger question has been whether the shipyard will truly close at all.

"I've never received a secret handshake or a note under the table that said, 'Pretend,' " Rear Admiral Francis W. Harness, naval base commander, said during a recent interview. He was concerned that many employees still had not accepted the idea that the shipyard could close.

Many have not. Some find reassurance in the fact that over the last two decades the shipyard has been on more hit lists than Saddam Hussein; yet, it has always survived.

Others look to a federal lawsuit for comfort. In the summer of 1991, a coalition of political leaders and labor unions representing shipyard workers

went to court alleging that the Navy had rigged the process by which its facilities were evaluated for closing. The suit seeks to invalidate the Navy's entire 1991 list of facilities to be closed. The case is now before the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Yet even some of the officials who believe the lawsuit can be won say shipyard employees are living in a dream world if they expect the shipyard to remain exactly as is. They argue that there is a whole trend toward defense downsizing, particularly in the new Clinton administration. And, a new base- closure commission is supposed to identify more facilities for closing.

Locally, an effort is underway to keep politicians and city officials united behind the suit, while also pursuing a second plan. The plan would rely on a friendly administration in Washington to convert the shipyard into a maritime industrial complex, possibly involving a partnership of federal, state and local interests.

The goals include maintaining as much Navy ship work as possible and keeping the bulk of the workforce intact, while pursuing commercial work. The outline should be brought into sharper focus any day now when the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm, on behalf of the city Commerce Department, releases its evaluation of the capabilities of the shipyard and its workers.

"From my vantage point, the federal delegation, the City of Philadelphia, the leadership of the blue- and white-collar unions have been working very hard to ensure that in the prospect of base closure, the facility and the workers come first, and the final blueprint will preserve high-quality, high- skill jobs," said Penjerdel president Robert C. Wonderling.

Still, some workers are skeptical.

"We saw a draft and weren't too crazy about it, mainly because it talks about conversion," said William F. Reil, president of the Metal Trades Council, which represents the shipyard's blue-collar unions. "Everyone here wants the shipyard to stay a shipyard."

The shipyard is one of the region's largest employers, with 5,170 blue- collar workers such as McCulley, a journeyman machinist, and 1,583 white- collar workers such as D'Amico, supervisory administrative officer in the production department (analogous, she says, to being executive officer on a ship).

In a 1990 study, the Pennsylvania Economy League said that the blue-collar workers would be especially hard hit by a shutdown, confronted with periods of unemployment and wage losses.

It would not be surprising if such dire predictions encouraged workers to leave, but shipyard figures show that average attrition rates have remained relatively steady. And where are workers to go?

Some of their political leaders have told them to hang in there because they are needed to work on the Kennedy, and because the leaders are confident more work will come.

"I would tell them to stay," U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said in a recent phone interview. "And I would tell them to stay because the Navy Yard is open. There are plans to bring in other ships to extend the work at least until 1996. And I am optimistic we are going to work out the arrangements so the yard will continue to function."

A little more guidance should come to workers in a few weeks when the shipyard opens the Philadelphia Career Transition Center - the most extensive centralized job assistance available to workers since the yard was placed on the base-closure list.

D'Amico has been picked to be career-transition program manager. McCulley will be one of roughly 20 career counselors. His union boss selected him for the job. The center is a cooperative venture between labor and management.

In a former bank-turned-library that still has drive-in windows, the career-transition center will offer shipyard and base employees all kinds of help - writing resumes, finding places to go for retraining, gaining access to computer programs that can tap into a national job bank, or matching employee interests with specific federal job classifications.

The center will work closely with the Private Industry Council, which was awarded a $465,000 grant to begin begin preparing for layoffs at the yard.

Many workers have complained that there has been nothing around to help them figure out what to do. Numerous government programs are available to retrain workers, but workers have no access to them until they get pink slips. The new transition center, however, will enable workers to plan for that day. On-call and temporary employees who have already been told to leave will have access to all services immediately.

For the next phase, organizers hope to identify private-sector jobs.


D'Amico had qualms about accepting the position at the career-transition center. She was afraid that by taking the job, she might be signaling that the shipyard was doomed. "I'm still part of the shipyard in denial," she said, sitting in the center's pink offices, near the bank of phones and new computers.

Eventually, though, she figured that workers deserved the best available help, no matter what happens to the shipyard. "To me, this is an insurance policy," she said.

For McCulley, all of this has been an eye-opener.

He has been laid off before - once a dozen years ago when he was 30, after 11 years at an energy-systems manufacturer that was taken over by another company. He fell into a job at the shipyard.

What he recognizes now is that "people have not planned their jobs, their careers. Those are things you fell into, or your father got you a job. You enjoyed it, but you never sat down and said this is how I want to end up."

The way he figures, it's his turn to plan. He doubts there will be a place at the shipyard for all of the blue-collar workers such as himself and worries that at age 42 he will not be as competitive as some of the younger workers. He doesn't think he should hang on until the end.

But planning takes time - and knowledge.

The Monday before Christmas, the McCulleys' 10-year-old Buick died. He and his wife, Kathy, want to buy a used car as soon as they can scrape the money together. Until then, the car, like McCulley's future, is on hold.

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