Sadness cloaks London Fog plants

July 30, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton and Patricia Horn | Suzanne Wooton and Patricia Horn,Sun Staff Writers Sun Staff writers John E. Woodruff and Greg Tasker contributed to this article.

Shortly after lunch, they gathered in the middle of the sewing room floor, surrounded by workbenches piled with cut, unstitched material. Most knew they would finally hear what they had long suspected.

"Our jobs are going overseas," 39-year-old seamstress Gloria Coleman said later as she left the Northwest Baltimore plant. "There's a lot of resentment. I worked very hard for the little pay I get."

What she earned for her 40 hours, stitching seams in London Fog raincoats eight hours a day, was $180 a week -- sometimes a little more, sometimes less.

"It ain't great, but it's a job -- which is more than I'll have when they close that door," she said.

On Oct. 31, nearly 40 years after London Fog began making the khaki-colored Dacron and cotton raincoats,the company's sewing machines in Baltimore, Hancock and Williamsport will be idled.

Workers yesterday expressed sadness and resignation -- yet surprisingly little anger.

"I don't put blame on one side or another," said Dennis Stewart, who has worked in the maintenance department at London Fog's Baltimore plant for 28 years.

"Business is business. What isn't made out of the country nowadays?"

London Fog officials have said they can make their garments cheaper overseas.

If the workers seemed to accept the closing so matter-of-factly, perhaps it was because they had seen it all too often before, at Misty Harbor and other factories.

"I worked at Misty Harbor when they closed," said Jeannette Boyer, a 43-year-old grandmother of three, as she sat on the factory's front steps. "This is the business world," she said. "I'll just have to put my trust in myself and see what I can make."

Most of London Fog's workers are women, many single mothers who worked there for decades after high school.

In recent years, work had begun slacking off at the company's plants, forcing some to seek part-time work. "I already couldn't manage on the pay here," said Vanessa Cherry, a mother of two who worked part-time to supplement the $6.14 an hour she earned sewing buttons onto London Fog garments.

"This used to be a nice place to work, but it's been going downhill for the past five years," said Ms. Cherry, who has worked at the plant 17 years.

Ever since the Baltimore-based corporation shut down its three other plants late last year, many workers at the remaining plants in Baltimore, Williamsport and Hancock figured their turn was coming.

Yesterday, some even seemed relieved to get the final word.

"We were all just tired of wondering and waiting," said Pat Socks, 40, a bundler from Hagerstown who made about $7 an hour at the company's plant in Williamsport.

London Fog workers had long since grown accustomed to sporadic layoffs that resulted from seasonal downturns. Plants often closed for a week or more.

"But this isn't any layoff," said Irene Burrell, president of Local 775 of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union which represents workers at the Baltimore plant.

"It's gonna close down forever," she said, glancing back at the one-story plant.

"There's a lot of sadness, a lot of hurt. So many people depend on this job," she said.

The timing of the announcement -- just a week after the workers returned from the company's annual, two-week shutdown -- did anger some employees.

"If they knew before the vacation we took this month, they should have told us before, so we could use the vacation to look for new jobs," said Bonnie Bowens, 29, who started work at London Fog in April for $5 an hour. "Now we'll have to take time off from work and lose pay in order to look for work."

Ms. Bowens, a Baltimore single mother of two sons, said she will try to find a job that enables her to return to a nursing program at Baltimore City Community College.

"I just don't want to go back on social services. I got off that and I don't want to take my sons back on that way again," she said.

"It's just a shame, I loved the job and I loved the people. . . . ." Ms. Bowens said.

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