A farewell to jobs Closing down: After 65 years at Locust Point, Procter & Gamble is moving plant's operations elsewhere in the country.

September 24, 1995|By Kevin L. McQuaid and Laura Lippman | Kevin L. McQuaid and Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

With less than a week left to operate, the Procter & Gamble Co.'s plant in Locust Point already looks deserted and forlorn, with little sign of activity at the dowdy red brick buildings on Nicholson Street.

The last bottles of Dawn, Ivory and Joy rolled off the assembly lines late last month, and the gray metal machines stand silent. The 70-some workers left have turned to the dirty job of shutting down the place.

They're taking apart the machines and ripping out robots, then sending many on to their new home in Kansas City, Mo. They're trying to wash away the chemical residue that comes with 65 years of production, in case anyone wants to buy 26 acres of waterfront property.

By Friday, the only thing left to do will be to padlock the gates and pay their respects to jobs most of them have held for half their lives. One by one, the skeleton crew will trickle out, vanishing in much the same way the 215 good-paying jobs P&G maintained here at the time of their January 1994 closure announcement disappeared from Baltimore's economy. Bit by bit, one by one, job by job.

They all know each other, have shared in each other's lives over the years, have watched each other's kids grow up. Goodybe to Jim Angelo, who at 46 had 24 years at Procter & Gamble. Goodbye, Joe Brockmeyer, 44 and not quite sure what he's going to do next. Goodbye Bob Bush Jr., a third-generation employee who wanted to work to age 60, pick up his gold watch and go sit on a beach somewhere.

"It's like graduating from high school," said Frank Lenivy Jr., a second-generation worker who has transferred to a P&G plant in Pennsylvania. "You know that most of these people you'll never see again."

At its height in 1979, 550 people were on the payroll, turning out the products that keep Americans -- and their clothes, houses and dishes -- clean. Camay. Tide. Cascade. Spic N' Span. Ivory Snow. Cheer. At one point, it accounted for 28 percent of Ivory soap production -- that's 115 million floating white bars, all from Locust Point.

Local families sent two, three generations of workers here, entering into the unspoken covenant of the post-World War II industrial boom: Work hard, and a job will always be there for you.

"I thought I had a job there for life," said Mike Fritz, who put in 25 years at Locust Point. "We were doing well for them. We made them big money. But with technological improvements and concentrate formulas, you can make twice as much as before with half the people."

The Locust Point plant survived the Depression, World War II, at least three fires and an eight-week strike in the early 1970s. It produced 30 separate product lines for the Cincinnati-based conglomerate and had been upgraded as recently as 1988 with a multimillion-dollar renovation.

L But it couldn't survive the business realities of the 1990s.

Procter & Gamble isn't the only Fortune 100 company locally to embrace the new technologies in which less truly becomes more. Within two years, Coca-Cola USA plans to open its new $60 million plant in Allentown, Pa., which doesn't bode well for the 73-year-old plant in Locust Point and its 125 jobs.

Between shutdowns and layoffs, Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of good-paying blue-collar jobs over the last two decades, none of which have been replaced. The reasons are familiar: Heightened competition, the emergence of a global economy, automation, computer software and changing distribution patterns.

"It's like putting a frog in a pan of water, then turning on the heat. The frog doesn't realize it's boiling to death, and it dies," said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends and author of "The End of Work," which describes the insidious correlation between technology and employment loss.

"Company by company this is happening, and because there's no national debate, the average person doesn't sense what's happening."

Tearful farewell

Plant manager Bonnie A. Curtis had to choke back tears as she stood before her workers on Jan. 13, 1994. She had already been through one painful shutdown at P&G's operation in Long Beach, Calif., before transferring to Baltimore in March 1993. She didn't want a repeat of that experience.

But since July 1993, when she first saw internal studies from the company's Cincinnati headquarters, Ms. Curtis knew this day was inevitable.

"I spent the whole summer angry with the company," said the 37-year-old manager. "I had finally gotten promoted, people trusted me here. That's what really hurt."

As much as the news hurt Ms. Curtis, it was even more painful for the 215 workers who had assembled in the former Cascade packing room. After all, management personnel presumably had signed on for a life of transfers and often painful decisions.

Ms. Curtis, for example, is going to be the plant manager at a $60 million shampoo and toothpaste factory in Guangzhou, China, with more than 1,000 employees. It was a move she had sought after vacationing there years ago.

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