FOR US SEAFARERS, FILING REPRESENTS LATEST SIGN THAT US FLEET IS SINKING

FOR US SEAFARERS, FILING REPRESENTS LATEST SIGN THAT US FLEET IS SINKING

U.S. seafarers see the bankruptcy protection filing by Lykes as just the latest step in a slow demise of the company's U.S.-flag fleet.

At the same time, the news about Lykes sends another signal that the U.S. merchant marine - and the thousands of deck officers, engineers and seafarers that depend on it for employment - is in deep trouble."The industry is going down the tubes at a very reckless speed," said Jesse Calhoon, who negotiated with Lykes for many years as president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, which represents Lykes' shipboard engineers.

When Lykes' unions were informed Wednesday morning about the bankruptcy, they were told Lykes will remain in business and that previous commitments will be honored, union officials said.

Lykes negotiated new three-year labor agreements with District 1/MEBA, District 4/National Maritime Union-MEBA, the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, and the American Radio Association in 1994.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

"They intend to keep going full-steam," said a District 1/MEBA spokesman.

Two of the five ships left in Lykes' U.S.-flag fleet are owned by First American Bulk Carrier Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of District 1/MEBA. The vessels have been operated by Nicholas Bachko Co. District 1/MEBA officials were not available for further comment Thursday.

Timothy Brown, MM&P president, said Thursday that it was "way too soon to make an estimate of what our response is and what the reorganization means

from our standpoint."

However, he added that the MM&P, which represents Lykes' deck officers, is ''getting our own bankruptcy attorney" to deal with the situation.

"We did suspect this was coming," he said.

PAINFUL LOSSES

The job losses at Lykes have been particularly painful for the NMU, which represents Lykes' unlicensed seafarers. Lykes has been the NMU's largest employer for many years and the scrapping of its labor-intensive freighters has cost the NMU hundreds of jobs.

"For the NMU members' viewpoint, this reduces the amount of jobs in the Gulf," said James F. "Pat" Paterson. He is an NMU member who served from 1978 to 1990 as the NMU's vice president for contract enforcement.

If Lykes' financial problems deepen, other companies contracted to the NMU could be hurt because they are obligated to make up contributions to the NMU's pension and welfare plans if one signatory drops out, Mr. Paterson said. A New York lawyer representing other NMU employers could not be reached.

According to Mr. Calhoon, the former president of District 1/MEBA, Lykes was a difficult company to negotiate with and was often the last holdout during labor talks.

In 1965, when the marine engineers struck East Coast subsidized lines, Lykes rejected a union offer to allow several passenger ships operated by U.S. Lines and Grace Lines to keep sailing, Mr. Calhoon recalled. All three lines belonged to a management negotiating group.

'TIGHT, TIGHT, TIGHT'

"Lykes has been tight, tight, tight," he said.

Lykes' labor relations worsened in 1993 and 1994, when the company began a concerted effort to rein in its costs.

In October 1993, a Lykes official said the company might consider negotiating labor contracts with the American Maritime Officers and the Seafarers International Union, which compete with the MM&P, District 1/MEBA and the NMU for seagoing jobs.

That threat was never carried out. But four months later, Lykes decided to charter four new containerships using crews supplied by the AMO and the SIU. The new ships were chartered from the U.S. subsidiary of a German ship management company that had a manning agreement with Pacific-Gulf Marine Inc. of Gretna, La.

But last December, Lykes decided not to register the new ships under the U.S. flag and won permission from the Maritime Administration to sail them under the Liberian flag. As a result, the German company hired foreign crews and the AMO and SIU never got the new containership jobs they were expecting.