Lose your job, and times don't seem so good

DAN RODRICKS

December 12, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

As he voted for him, Jerry Phipps agrees with Bill Clinton on a lot of things, including the economy: It gets a mixed review.

"Sometimes the headlines seem so in conflict with the personal experiences people are having," Clinton said the other day. "Things don't always get better for people even when the unemployment rate drops."

"I still see bad signs out there," is how Jerry Phipps puts it.

See them? He's living them.

The A&P bakery on Franklintown Road, where Phipps has worked for the last 30 years, closes next Friday, eliminating 210 jobs that paid, on average, $12 an hour. The longest recession since World War II just got a little longer.

Jerry Phipps is 49 years old now. The job he started in 1962 was a lot easier to get than the next one likely will be.

Phipps went to A&P looking to be a meatcutter -- a good, secure job with a good company, the biggest supermarket chain in the country. A fellow could make more than $2 an hour if he was lucky.

So Jerry Phipps stopped by the personnel office, but the guy who hired the meatcutters wasn't there. Phipps didn't feel like waiting. He went down the lane to the A&P Bakery, where Jane Parker products were baked and the mornings smelled of sweet yeast.

Phipps snatched at the first job offer. He went on the pie line for $2.27 an hour.

"I was a pie dumper," Phipps said yesterday. "I dumped the pies out of the ovens. They came 16 at a time, and you had a long fork that you took two pies off at a time with. The pies just kept coming through those ovens, lined up like soldiers."

At one point, some 400 men and women turned more than a million pounds of flour a week into bread, rolls, cakes, pies, English muffins and donuts in the big bakery on the western edge of the city. The A&P products went out in A&P trucks to A&P stores along the East Coast. Ann Page, Jane Parker and 8 O'clock Coffee -- they were the popular store brands that made A&P great.

Standing in the middle of all this with the pie fork in his hand, the smell of sweet yeast up his nose, Jerry Phipps fit right in. He liked the work. "Got a nickel raise after a month on the job, when I joined the union," he said.

Phipps went from pie-dumper to cake-mixer. (He's one of the bakery workers responsible for all that Jane Parker holiday fruitcake.) He worked a bread-wrapping machine. He put pies in boxes. He worked as a shipping clerk.

During all that time, Phipps and his wife had seven children, four boys and three girls; the youngest is 8 today, the oldest 28. His union -- Phipps credits shop chairman John Brandt with many of the gains -- secured better wages and benefits over the years. In the 1980s, workers made concessions to keep the aging plant operating, even as A&P was changing form -- in Maryland, its stores are called Super Fresh -- and losing ground to competitors.

Over the years, A&P's stores started to look rundown and old, so customers started going to shiny-brights, such as Giant, to buy their groceries. Television advertising popularized national products and that hurt the sales of A&P's store brands, which customers came to regard as second rate.

The Franklintown Road plant is A&P's last bread, pie and cake operation in the United States. Baltimore-based H&S will now produce bakery goods for A&P's store-brand labels, and Jerry Phipps says the fruitcake he used to mix will be made in Canada and shipped into the U.S.

"Yeah, about five years," Phipps said when asked how much borrowed time the Franklintown Road bakery had enjoyed. The workers saw layoffs among their own, and they saw dozens of plants and factories close in Baltimore over the past two decades. This is an old story, a long-standing problem -- the loss of solid manufacturing jobs. It's what Clinton was talking about the other day. "We may or may not be coming out of our recession," he said. "There are some good indicators that we are. But the long-term problems are there."

After next Friday, Jerry Phipps and 209 other men and women will have to pay for their own health insurance (about $400 a month), take their pensions (if they're qualified) or start looking for work, or both. One of Phipps' sons is bugging him to open his own business, maybe a sandwich shop, which is something he's wanted to do for a long time. He knew this day was coming.

I tell Phipps he should apply for that meatcutter's job he wanted 30 years ago. Maybe the guy who does the hiring has returned to his office.

"Hell," Phipps says, "he's long gone by now, too."

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