Sail Away Philadelphia's Naval Shipyard, Jobs Powerhouse For The Region, Is Cut Adrift In The Economy

Posted: August 21, 1995

"In 1985, when I was working as a pipefitter . . . I went to one of the older fellows in the shop about a rumor that the yard was closing. He was puffing on a cigar and he said: 'Listen, kid, this place has been shutting down for 240 years. It ain't never going to close. So shut up and get out of here.' "

- Jim Wasniewski, a 10-year Navy Yard employee, now a safety and health specialist at National Naval Medical Center-Lakehurst Detachment.

The closing of the Philadelphia Naval Base symbolizes the end of the 20th century.

The base represents a time when America was, indisputably, the mightiest military and economic force in the world, when this country prided itself on making things - like cars, planes, and ships.

It is an icon of a time when you didn't need to go to college to get a decent-paying job, when industrial workers joined unions to have a say at their workplace, and when most people believed: "If you work hard and do a good job, you'll succeed."

Today, as we approach the 21st century, almost no one's job is secure - no matter how well it's done.

The base also represents, in microcosm, Philadelphia's economic dilemma, said Walter Licht, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We're talking about the disappearance of highly skilled, well-paid jobs . . . the kind of jobs that are learned through apprenticeships, that require working your way up a career ladder," Licht said.

"These are not assembly line jobs. These are not the kind of jobs that repeat the same task over and over."

Philadelphia industries required such skilled workers when Baldwin Co. made locomotives here, when Philco Corp. made television sets, when the Frankford Arsenal developed weapons systems.

In the past, when one industry died out, another filled in, Licht said. When the textile industry left Kensington in the 1930s, electronics took over.

But when the electronics jobs departed, only empty factories remained. And what was happening in Philadelphia was happening across the nation.

Thus, Licht said, the skilled tradesmen from the Naval Base may find other jobs, but those jobs aren't likely to require as much skill or pay as well.

"They won't be able to use all the skill and the training they've had," he said.

And, he adds, "no one knows what will come next."

The Philadelphia Naval Base is not closing because shipbuilding is no longer competitive. Japan alone has 26 shipyards and is the world's leader in production.

It is not closing because it was deemed inefficient. In 1991, the Navy cited Philadelphia as "the most cost-efficient and profitable" of its eight (soon to be five) shipyards.

"Audit teams would come to our shop and say: 'This is amazing. Why don't they do it this way everywhere else?' " said Paul Coff,

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a Northeast Philadelphia resident who was a budget analyst at the Navy Yard and is now at Fort Dix.

"In every department, our guys were smarter and more efficient," Coff said. "When other places had skill shortages, we would loan guys. We loaned 30 shipfitters to a yard on the West Coast, supposedly for 90 days. They finished the work in 45 days.

"These weren't superstars, they were regular Philly mechanics."

In 1988, Philadelphia became the first public shipyard to introduce a new Japanese method of shipbuilding, known as zone technology, to increase productivity, said Robert Gorgone, the yard's former director of strategic planning. He's joining the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

As for on-time performance:

"We were always famous for our 'Philly Finish,' " recalled Lorraine Daliessio, a former shipfitter. "That meant no matter what was asked of us, we got the job done, done right and done on schedule."

During World War II, the Navy Yard built a battleship, the U.S.S. Wisconsin, in an amazing 18 weeks. It did so with an average of 9,920 workers on the job every hour, every day. More recently, the yard outfitted three ships in three weeks for service during the Persian Gulf War.

Even on the yard's last assignment, overhauling the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, Gorgone said, "it will be a Philly Finish right to the end."

The Philadelphia yard also was known for aggressively pursuing assignments.

Federal regulations prohibited the yard from competing for private-industry contracts, Gorgone said, but it could do work for other government agencies.

"We overhauled a fireboat for the City of Philadelphia. We painted Park Service buildings at Independence Mall," he said. "In 1993, (the last period for which figures are available,) the shipyard did $51 million in additional work. The closest any other Navy yard came was $5 million."

But all of this doesn't matter. The Pentagon is eliminating bases and that's that.


Of course, it's easy to over-romanticize the shipyard.

After all, the glory days of the Navy Yard have always been in wartime, especially World War II, when 47,000 people worked there turning out battleships, destroyers and aircraft carriers.

That glory came at a high price. People died in the war, of course, but 20 or 30 years later, some workers learned that their lungs had been damaged from working with asbestos.

The Philadelphia area has produced the third-largest volume of asbestos damage suits against manufacturers, after California and New York. And asbestos was not the only hazard. Shipbuilding was dangerous work; slips and falls could bring anything from a sprain to death.

And even in the days when government jobs were most secure, shipyard employment was not. The number of employees rose in wartime and fell in peacetime.

Most blacks and women offered opportunity during World War II were laid off when the war ended.

And no matter its performance, the yard has a long history of being threatened with closure, before the threat finally became reality.

"I remember in the '60s, many people resigned to get other jobs, thinking they'd be left in the cold if the place shut down," said John R. Sciaretto, 76, a sheetmetal worker who waited and retired in 1981.

The Boston and Brooklyn shipyards were closed then, but not Philadelphia.

"People here have been on an emotional roller coaster because of the closing rumors over the years," said Gorgone, the former strategic planning director.

So has Philadelphia.

Although the shipyard represents less than 1 percent of Philadelphia's economy, it was not something the struggling city could easily afford to lose, said Terry Gillen, director of the city's Office of Defense Conversion.

Philadelphia also loses part of its population.

Whenever a ship came here for a two-year overhaul, its crew - and many

families - became temporary residents. When the Kennedy sails for its home port near Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 15, some 3,000 Navy personnel and family members will go there, too.

But this time, no crew will replace them.

Another 300 to 400 Navy personnel stationed here for three- to five-year tours of duty also are leaving. The Base Officers Club has been closed for a year. The damage-control school closed in mid-June.

The closing of the shipyard also affects the Philadelphia region. In 1990, the Navy projected it would result in the direct loss of 11,188 civilian and military jobs and the indirect loss of about 8,498 jobs at such private establishments as restaurants, hospitals and suppliers.

That year, the Pennsylvania Economy League estimated the closing would cost the region $383 million in retail sales. It also projected the city would lose $43 million a year in tax revenues, the state $24 million and New Jersey $12 million.

The Navy will hold a "closure ceremony" for the base Sept. 30. - a ceremony akin to a ship's decommissioning, said Lt. Cmdr. Robert Raine, the base's public affairs officer. "There will be a recital of the yard's history, some speakers, and some tears," he predicted.

The few Navy installations that continue will have new reporting arrangements. The propeller foundry, for example, will report to the Naval Sea Systems Command in Norfolk, Va.

The last "base" personnel will leave by the end of January.

Philadelphia is searching for new uses for the base's 1,168 acres - about the size of Center City - suited to an era of global competition, a mostly ''service" domestic economy, shrinking wages and benefits, and widespread anxiety.

The city envisions an influx of cutting-edge private companies, said Gillen - a foreign-owned shipmaker, an inter-modal freight-handler, maybe a pier for a cruise ship. There are a myriad of possibilities.

City officials hopefully projected as many as 17,600 jobs replacing the 11,000 at the base when the closure decision came down.

But nobody is promising that these jobs, if they do come, will appear immediately, nor that all will pay as well or have the same benefits as the Navy jobs.

So for now, it's just hail and farewell.

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