Crown Cork warns plant Essex workers told to accept cuts or facility will close

November 05, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Crown Cork & Seal Co. Inc. said yesterday that it will close its Essex aluminum can plant, which employs 81 people, in the middle of December unless workers agree to cuts in wages and benefits.

Fred W. Veil, the Philadelphia-based company's director of industrial relations, said Crown Cork has too much plant space devoted to making soft-drink cans.

Veil said if the Steelworkers union, which represents most of the plant's workers, negotiates "a more cost-effective labor agreement," the company will invest between $8 million and $10 million for equipment to make food cans.

Otherwise, the plant will close Dec. 14.

Jack Butcher, president of Local 8395 of the United Steelworkers of America, said: "The contract they offered us is unacceptable. They want to take away our fringe benefits."

Crown Cork & Seal has a single five-year agreement with Local 8395 and work forces at three other plants, in Salisbury, Chicago and Worland, Wyo. The contract expires in 1998.

Founded in Baltimore in 1892, Crown Cork was once a major employer here with as many as 5,200 workers during the 1950s.

Its headquarters moved to Philadelphia in 1957, and the company now employs about 330 workers in the Baltimore area and another 130 on the Eastern Shore.

Veil wouldn't discuss details of the changes sought by the company.

Butcher said the company wants to cut the hourly wage of Essex workers from $20 to $16. He also said Crown wants to cut the pay rate for work beyond 60 hours a week from 2.5 times the hourly wage to 1.5 times.

Crown also wants to take away a benefit that gives 15-year veterans 13 weeks of vacation every five years, Butcher said. It would also take away a guarantee that gives laid-off employees with 10 years of experience 85 percent of their annual pay for one year.

'In a tough spot'

"Sure they have us in a tough spot," he said. "What they tell us is, 'you accept it or you're out.' "

Since 1993, when 16 plants were covered by the five-year agreement, Butcher said, the company has forced 12 to negotiate separate pacts.

He said Local 8395 has filed a grievance charging that Crown Cork is violating the agreement by planning to shift work from the Essex plant to nonunion plants in Toronto and South Carolina.

"We feel like we have a good chance of winning," he said.

Butcher said he wasn't sure if the union will offer a counterproposal.

"We are talking to our international union," he said. "If we do anything, it will be in the next week or so."

Crown Cork became the owner of the 22-year-old, 470,000-square-foot plant on Citation Road in 1990, when it bought the Continental Can Co.

Veil said the company has been reducing its capacity since that acquisition.

In 1992, Crown Cork closed a metal coating plant on Duncanwood Lane in East Baltimore, eliminating 60 jobs. The company in 1994 closed a tin can plant in Hurlock, laying off 27 workers.

The Essex plant produces two-piece aluminum cans, many of which are used for Coca-Cola.

Veil said the growing use of plastic bottles and the high price of aluminum have reduced demand for the two-piece, soft-drink cans produced at the Essex plant. The company has 19 plants that make cans or their tab ends.

Prompt action suggested

"We don't need it for two-piece beverage cans," he said. "That's a foregone conclusion. The only way the facility would survive is if we would ultimately convert it to a two-piece food plant."

So far, he said, the company has heard little from the union. He said the union must move quickly if it's interested in saving the plant, certainly before the Dec. 14 shutdown date.

"We have options at other existing facilities," Veil said.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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