Doffing Maryland's raincoats

August 08, 1994

With the loss of nearly 1,000 Maryland jobs at London Fog raincoat factories this year, barring a miraculous recovery at 11th-hour talks between labor and management this week, the focus shifts to the company's apparel distribution center in Eldersburg which employs more than 600 people.

As long as the privately held company prospers, the center's future appears bright. Its location is convenient for the company's East Coast customers; unlike the rainwear manufacturing jobs, the facility can't be moved overseas to cut costs.

At the same time, there is the suggestion that backlash action such as a boycott by the Clothing Workers union could imperil those jobs in Carroll County. London Fog earlier moved the corporate headquarters from Eldersburg to Connecticut.

The announced closing of the last three plants of the company that began in Baltimore over 70 years ago signals another sad chapter in the flight of U.S. garment industry jobs to low-wage foreign factories. The company says it costs $18 more to produce a coat here than offshore.

But the story of London Fog's departure from Maryland manufacturing is more complicated, marked by the feeling that at least a part of the operations could have been saved had both labor and management shown more openness, goodwill and flexibility in the talks. Admittedly, it was a tough situation, with the Maryland raincoat output accounting for only 10 percent of the company's total business.

The union had already seen the firm eliminate 300 jobs and two plants in Maryland, plus the corporate offices, in 1994. It accused the employer of violating apparel import limits in the labor contract. Wages for these experienced garment makers was only about $300 a week, with not much to give back. And London Fog would guarantee the jobs for only one year.

The company proposed shifting some foreign-made production to the Maryland plants, but it wanted more liberal import limits. It was committed to a long-term lease on the Baltimore facility which will cost $1.5 million through 1999. A plan to retool the Hancock plant and shift employees from piece-work to teamwork production, with a million-dollar state aid package, was under study.

Once London Fog reached a deadline for fall orders and placed production overseas, the prospect of salvaging the Maryland plants became more difficult. There were limits to the amount of money the workers and the state could commit to keeping operations here. Now the London Fog raincoats so long tied to Baltimore will carry a foreign label.

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