Stroh plant caps an era Last major brewery in Maryland closes, victim of downsizing

December 19, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Yesterday afternoon at the Lansdowne Inn, there wasn't a single "Natty Boh" on the bar.

Hours earlier, the 30 Halethorpe brewery workers who crammed the small eatery had gotten their last paychecks as Stroh Brewery Co. closed the brewery and eliminated its 430 jobs.

As the workers mulled the future, they drank Michelob and Budweiser. They spent their money on anything but Natty Boh -- National Bohemian, the Baltimore beer they brewed and drank before the shutdown.

"Stroh kicked us out," said Bob Slick, 51, as he sipped a Michelob. "They didn't close us because of low sales or lack of production. It's the downsizing that goes on that stinks."

Detroit-based Stroh took over the Halethorpe plant -- the state's last major brewery -- in July, when it acquired G. Heileman Brewing Co.

Then, in October, Stroh announced it would shut the sprawling plant because it owns larger, newer breweries in the Lehigh Valley, Pa., area and Winston-Salem, N.C. The company will shift production of the brewery's brands -- which include Black Label, National Bohemian and Colt 45 -- to other breweries.

The company, which had planned to phase out production by Friday, finished operations two days early. "They did such a good job at cleaning the place up that we were able to give them three days off with pay," David McFarland, the plant manager, said.

The workers earned about $15 an hour. They will get severance pay of $100 or $170 for every year of service, depending on their age and their length of service. "There's no such thing as a generous severance package," said Charles Stansburge, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 570. "You can't put a price on the loss of a job like that. We're talking about a $45,000-a-year job."

But Stansburge said Stroh gave workers a better deal than they would have gotten under a contract with Heileman. For example, he said, some of the most experienced and least experienced workers would have received no severance pay under the Heileman pact. "The Stroh company didn't have to enhance Heileman's package, but they did and they had been the employer only since July," he said.

Because of a federal grant, the workers will be eligible for job-training assistance and for 52 weeks of unemployment compensation -- twice the normal 26 weeks, Stansburge said.

The 365 hourly workers have spent an average of about 12 years at the brewery. Several have more than 30 years of service.

Company officials said about one-third of the work force -- about 145 people -- will retire. Stansburge said less than a dozen workers have found jobs elsewhere. "I don't think many had the opportunity to spend the time to look," he said. "You're not going to replace $16-an-hour jobs."

For most of its 35 years, the brewery bustled with the sounds of machinery and bottles. It was capable of making 2.4 million barrels a year. The brewery outlasted six owners and at least a half-dozen other Baltimore breweries such as National, Globe and Gunther.

Since October, production has gradually stopped, first at the brew-house and finally shipping. The brewery made its last can of Natty Boh on Nov. 11. Its last product was Colt 45, canned on Dec. 12.

Yesterday, the brewery was silent. In the lobby, a "No Smoking" sign was altered to read "No beermaking." The Halethorpe brewery is for sale, but industry experts doubt that it will ever operate as a brewery again.

"You wish things could never end," said brewmaster John Houseman. "Everything was good. The employees were fantastic right up until the end."

McFarland, one of the few people left in the plant yesterday, recommended the work force to other area employers. "Good people are always able to find good jobs," he said. "When one door closes, another one opens."

At the Lansdowne Inn, workers weren't so sure.

For Slick, the closing is a double blow because his son Rob, 28, also worked there. He said he'll try to make a few dollars as a painter, but is not sure if he can match his wages. "I want to retire, but I can't retire because I'm not old enough," he said.

Rob Slick said he'll go back to school and try to learn another job. "My father took me in here when I was 3 or 4 years old, so it's an emotional day for me," he said.

Mitchell Lee, 39, doubted he could match his pay within Maryland. "Maryland is going to create 40,000 jobs," he said. "But they're all in warehouses and shipping. Where are the manufacturing jobs? I'm going to Pennsylvania."

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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