London Fog workers swallow pride, cuts

September 27, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

Bitter but resigned, factory workers at London Fog Corp. yesterday approved a contract that will keep a scaled-down Baltimore plant operating but close two others in Western Maryland and cut the pay of remaining workers.

Yesterday's vote climaxed months of contentious on-again, off-again talks that had seen the company continually raise the stakes, finally putting the livelihood of 700 workers on the line.

Faced with a total shutdown by the end of October, members of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union voted 478-to-174 for the two-year agreement that preserved the jobs of 220 of them and improved severance for the rest.

"This is not one of my happier days. That's for sure," said Carmen S. Papale, regional manager of the union. "This is not the way I like to negotiate."

Under the agreement, London Fog plants in Williamsport and Hancock in Western Maryland will close by Oct. 31, putting more than 375 people out of work. And workers at the company's plant in the Park Circle Business Park in Northwest Baltimore will see their base pay cut by as much as $1.25 an hour -- a blow to workers who average around $16,000 a year.

"I make a very little amount of money, and I can't take any cuts," said Anna Bull, who has worked at the plant for 31 years but said she may now have to leave.

Yet, she still voted for the contract. "There are those that can't do any better, and I think we need to keep jobs in the United States," she said.

In late July, London Fog had announced it would close its last U.S. plants, in Baltimore, Hancock and Williamsport, after being unable to reach an agreement with the textile workers union.

But under continued pressure from state officials, renewed efforts by the union and a sudden change in London Fog top management, the plant in Northwest Baltimore was spared.

Mr. Papale particularly credited the efforts of Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development, and Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat.

But a clearly unhappy Mr. Papale said he presented the contract during a one-hour meeting without either endorsing or rejecting the proposal. "I told the people this is something I'm presenting to them, good or bad," he said.

And some workers said they expect the company to close the plant regardless of the vote.

"It doesn't make any difference," said Michael Witherspoon, a 20-year employee of Baltimore plant. "They have a habit of saying one thing and doing another."

Under the new contract, which takes effect Jan. 1, the base hourly rate will fall from $7.90 to $6.90, with workers required to meet hourly production quotas.

If they exceed those quotas, workers will get additional piece-work pay.

An additional 25 cents an hour paid to workers hired before 1985 will be eliminated.

As an incentive to workers to accept the contract, it includes a $1,000 payment to each of about 700 workers as settlement of a pending arbitration case.

And workers who will permanently lose their jobs -- including in Baltimore, where the work force will drop from 270 to 220 -- will receive severance equal to half a week's pay for every year they worked.

Workers at the Baltimore plant also will face a three-month layoff -- from the end of October to the end of January -- while the company undertakes a $2 million retooling to incorporate jobs that had been performed at Williamsport and Hancock. By consolidating production in one plant, the company hopes to cut the 18 days it now takes to produce a finished coat to 10.

Once it's back on line, the scaled-down operation will produce 205,000 coats a year -- less than half its current domestic output of 450,000 -- as overseas production grows.

Additionally, the company is asking the state and city to provide funds for retaining workers and to give the company a break on the $24,000 a month it pays in rent to a quasi-public agency for its Baltimore plant.

Mr. Wasserman said he expects an agreement on rent reduction and training funds to be worked out with the company by the end of the month.

"This is tough but positive medi cine," Mr. Wasserman, DEED secretary, said about the new contract. He said the new arrangement will help ensure the future of the company's Eldersburg distribution facility, with 500 workers.

Edward Frey, executive vice president for operations for London Fog, said the company had no choice but to seek lower production costs. "If we don't try to reduce the competitive difference, we won't have a factory," he said.

The company hopes to cut the difference from domestic and foreign production from $18 to $10 per coat.

Before and after

London Fog contract terms:

Current

Plants: Baltimore 270 workers

Hancock 280 workers

Williamsport 59 workers

Base factory wage: $7.90 plus 25 cents an hour for workers hired before 1985

Turnaround time per coat: 18 days

Annual coat output: 450,000

With new contract

Plants: Baltimore 220 workers

Base wage: $6.90, 25 cents an hour eliminated

Turnaround time per coat: 10 days

Annual coat output: 205,000

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