LONG BEACH — 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."