Hopes dim for pact on London Fog

July 08, 1994|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

Top state executives are increasingly pessimistic that they'll be able to broker a deal to prevent the shutdown of as many as three London Fog Corp. raincoat plants and the loss of up to 700 jobs.

"The prognosis is very dim and growing dimmer," Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development, said yesterday. "We are rather gloomy about prospects for solving this. We have not been able to find any common ground" between London Fog management and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers union.

London Fog's production season for fall merchandise is approaching, forcing the company to choose where to make garments, Mr. Wasserman added. "They are making choices," he said. "They've got schedules to meet."

He declined to describe the decisions or say what they might mean for London Fog's 300-worker Baltimore plant and its plants in Hancock and Williamsport. But the implication was clear: that one of Maryland's oldest garment makers may shift raincoat production to its overseas contractors.

London Fog Chairman and Chief Executive Arnold P. Cohen declined to specify the company's intentions, saying only that the situation is not encouraging and that London Fog is "laying in contingency plans." He added: "We continue to explore all the options."

No date has been set to close any plants, he said.

The dispute, typical of U.S. manufacturing in the past decade, involves imports, overseas plants and U.S. wages.

Management wants the union to drop an arbitration case hindering London Fog's importation of products into the United States. It also wants the union to allow manufacture of the company's lower-priced Towne coats -- now made overseas -- at London Fog's Maryland plants, which now make only London Fog-label coats.

The union, which claims managers intend to close the Maryland plants no matter what happens, is reluctant to drop the arbitration case and wants guarantees for its members' $7.60-an-hour-base-pay jobs beyond the October 1995 date offered by the company.

If no agreement is reached, London Fog has said the Maryland plants will cost too much to operate, compared with overseas factories, and might have to be shut down.

Hope for a rapprochement was briefly raised last week when Mr. Cohen and Carmen S. Papale, the top Maryland official for the union, sat down in a meeting arranged by two Maryland congressmen. Little progress was reported, but legislators and workers held out hope afterward that Gov. William Donald Schaefer could still persuade the opponents to agree.

The chances of that seemed lower yesterday.

Mr. Schaefer "is pessimistic based on what he has heard," spokeswoman Page W. Boinest said yesterday. "He generally is interested in lowering expectations all around."

The governor had planned to talk about London Fog on his regularly scheduled radio show yesterday, communicating his pessimism, she said. But he became ill and canceled the show.

"He has been following developments," Ms. Boinest said. "This is really the first pronouncement that he's made on the situation."

London Fog's Mr. Cohen and Mr. Wasserman, the economic development secretary, said they have talked to each other at least twice since late last week, most recently yesterday. They declined to disclose the contents of the conversations.

Mr. Papale, the union official, said he hasn't had any contact with state officials since last week. The fact that the plants are shut down for their normal two-week July hiatus may delay developments in the dispute, he said.

The face-off at London Fog, founded in Baltimore in 1922, has been developing for several months.

Mr. Cohen had asked the union to allow its members to vote on the company's proposal, and some workers have said they would like to vote. The union declined but made several counterproposals.

Mr. Papale said yesterday that he's not prepared to make any more offers. "The company hasn't changed their proposal," he said. "It's hard for me to negotiate against myself."

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