Plan devised to keep Esskay in city State, local officials putting together proposal to replace the aging plant

November 26, 1992|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

Efforts to keep the Esskay meat packing operation in Baltimore are moving ahead, with city and state officials expecting to present a plan next Thursday to replace the aging plant, according to a union official representing workers at the plant.

"There are packages being put together," said Bruce J. Drasal, assistant to the president of Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). "There's been good constructive, positive discussion," he said.

Meanwhile, the company is scheduled to begin a final series of layoffs tomorrow that would eliminate 300 jobs, leaving only a 50 person force to distribute meat products made elsewhere.

Smithfield Foods Inc., the parent company of Esskay, announced Sept. 30 that it planned to close the plant at 3800 E. Baltimore St. by the end of the year because of safety concerns raised by structural problems at the plant, which dates to the 1920s.

City and state officials immediately began working with the company and the union to find ways to keep the Esskay operation in Baltimore.

After discovering there were no alternative buildings for the plant that Esskay would find suitable, officials have focused on tearing down the existing factory and replacing it with an industrial park to include a new Esskay operation.

A plan for a new operation developed by the city and state is scheduled to be presented to Esskay officials a week from today. Company officials would then pass it on to their home office in Smithfield, Va., on Friday, according to Joe Karhart, service director, Local 27 of the UFCW.

Harry W. Grauling, labor relations for Esskay, declined to comment, other than to say discussions were being held, and referred questions to city and state agencies.

Mr. Drasal said that at a meeting Tuesday at the Esskay plant, state, city, union and company officials discussed the possibility of building part of the new facility in an area of the property next to U.S. 40. Other parts of the new plant could then be built in stages as the old plant was torn down.

Under this approach, construction would not have to wait until the old factory was torn down, and the expense of demolition could be postponed, Mr. Drasal said.

The total cost of the project would be in the range of $10 million to $13 million, Mr. Drasal said. But, he said, he did not know what share of the cost would be shouldered by Smithfield and the government agencies.

Mr. Drasal said he was optimistic that the efforts would keep Esskay in Baltimore. "I believe there will continue to be a presence of Esskay in Baltimore," he said.

The union's effort has been coordinated by Local 27 president Thomas M. Russow and Joseph L. Casico, legislative representative for Local 27.

Honora M. Freeman, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's business promotion agency, said it was still too early to say how the cost of a new plant would be shared by government agencies and Smithfield.

She also declined to discuss any detail of the proposal, saying it was being put together. "There have been some very good discussions about needs and capabilities," she said.

Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development, said state and city officials were developing two alternatives to present to Smithfield. One plan involved razing the existing plant and building a new facility. The other plan called for building in another part of the 13-acre Esskay property that would not require demolition.

He declined to discuss possible cost-sharing arrangements for the project.

Mr. Wasserman said he was "very encouraged" by the tenor of Tuesday's meeting. But he remained cautious about ultimate success.

"I don't have a strong feeling one way or the other on this one," he said.

As the plans were being made to start a new Esskay operation, the company continued the process of shutting down the old operation with the layoff tomorrow of 70 workers who work in the bacon, beef and corned beef departments.

That layoff would be followed by another furlough of 125 workers Dec. 11 in the sausage and delicatessen departments, said David B. McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Esskay plant.

An additional 105 employees would be laid off between Dec. 11 and the end of the year, he said.

A 50-person force will remain at the plant until at least the end of February to handle the distribution of Smithfield products made in other plants, Mr. McLaughlin. The company is searching for other quarters for that operation after February, he said.

Layoffs were originally scheduled to begin Oct. 23, but they were postponed after the company was able to shore up parts of the plant temporarily.

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