London Fog abandons a fearful Hancock

October 16, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

HANCOCK -- Ralph E. Wachter, mayor of Hancock, walks into the small community museum in the basement of the town hall and goes to a corner where a 32-year-old gray raincoat is hanging.

"There's the first London Fog coat [made in Hancock]," said the genial former Calvert County school superintendent.

Pulling open the coat, he reveals hundreds of signatures of the first workers at the plant, which opened in 1962.

"By Lord, there's my namesake," the mayor said, pointing to one signature. "How about that, Betty Wachter. My first cousin. My Lord, I didn't know that was on there."

Now that raincoat, along with a spade used in a 1980 expansion and plaques with the names of retirees, will become another relic of Hancock's lost past -- sharing room with crates from defunct orchards, a crossing signal from a torn-up railroad and paraphernalia from the C&O Canal, the overgrown 19th century artery of commerce that runs alongside the Potomac River just outside the Western Maryland town.

On Thursday, the large, pink, one-story London Fog factory, just four blocks from the town hall on Pennsylvania Avenue, will stop production, ending the jobs of 280 workers. For this small town nestled in the mountains about 20 miles west of Hagerstown, that's no small blow.

"London Fog is taking this town off the map," said Tom Taormina, a retired cook, as he stood on Main Street last week. "It's not fair to these people for as hard and as long as they've worked for them."

The fate of the plant was sealed last month when London Fog workers in Baltimore and Williamsport voted to accept a two-year contract that included provisions to close the Hancock plant and a smaller cutting operation in Williamsport, with about 60 workers. The contract also calls for staffing cuts at a retooled Baltimore plant, which will reopen in January with a reduced work force of 220.

The company also plans to expand its Eldersburg administrative and distribution center, which now has about 500 workers.

The arrangement ended a bitter six-month struggle between the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers union and the Darien, Conn.-based raincoat and outerwear company, which had threatened to shutter all three plants and shift all production overseas.

So, for just a few days more, London Fog tractor-trailer trucks will continue to trundle down Hancock's Pennsylvania Avenue, their back doors bearing the slogan: "There's a lot of your life in London Fog."

And in this tight-knit community of about 2,000 people, there's more truth to that than any ad copywriter could have imagined. The London Fog plant -- one of three major employers here -- was a place where families worked and fellow workers became like family.

"Actually, you get closer to some people in here than your own family," said Pam Hartman, a 17-year veteran of the plant and the president of the ACTWU local there.

"We cry on each other's shoulders," said Mary Lee Munson, 55, a 23-year veteran.

"In 23 years, you've grown up with these people, you know their kids, you know their grandkids. You do things together outside the plant," she said. "It's more traumatic than losing any of my husbands," she said, referring to her four former spouses.

Hiring relatives was common at the plant, according to Dolores J. Fling, 59, a presser who has worked at London Fog for 20 years. "Your mother is a good worker, we'll hire you," she said, summing up the management philosophy.

In her own family, at various times, her mother, husband, son, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson had worked at the plant.

"It's been good for me for 20 years. It's been good for my whole family," said Ms. Fling. "I don't think it [the closing] should have happened."

The work force consists mainly of women, many in their 40s and 50s who have worked there for decades, many bringing a second income to their families. And while the pay -- an average $16,000 a year -- was low compared to other industry jobs, the medical coverage was coveted.

"My insurance is what I need," said Ms. Fling, who suffers from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. With a maximum of 18 months' coverage -- six months of free benefits and 12 months at $166 a month -- she faces the prospects of not finding other coverage because of her pre-existing conditions.

"There are jobs in Hancock, but they don't have any benefits," she said. "We had it made here."

An education is at stake

For Rick and Sandra Kerr, much more than medical insurance is at stake. Both work at the plant and are losing their combined income of about $35,000. The only bright spot is the $9,429 they will receive -- before taxes -- in severance and other payments.

"It's terrible. It's heart-wrenching on us. It tears us apart," said Mr. Kerr, 44, who lives in a trailer with his wife and three children in Warfordsburg, just a few miles away over the Pennsylvania state line. "But there ain't a lot we can do about it because that's what they decided to do, and that's what they did."

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