London Fog, Ripken show great divide.

April 06, 1997|By Michael Olesker

They'll need more than raincoats for the storm approaching London Fog. In June, 281 employees will be sent into the economic cold - Nice to know ya, don't let the door smack you on the way out - and the plant will cease operations after three-quarters of a century here. This leaves us with the burning question: Who's left to buy baseball tickets?

We mention baseball only for a sense of perspective. In the same instant last week that London Fog was writing its own obituary in Baltimore, the Orioles were signing a new deal for Cal Ripken. He'll get about $6.3 million over the next two seasons, plus a few tiny incentives: $100,000 for making the All Star team (duh, who's kidding whom?); $100,000 for winning a Gold Glove, etc., etc. Sure, the et cetera dough sounds puny, but a hundred grand here, a hundred grand there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

At London Fog, the average worker makes $6.90 an hour. Over the course of a year, that comes to about $14,000. You multiply this $14,000 times the 281 London Fog employees, and you get $3,934,000. For an entire factory's yearly payroll. This is slightly more than Randy Myers, a relief pitcher, makes in a single season. All by himself. It is slightly less than Brady Anderson makes. Also, all by himself.

And the $14,000 annual wage per London Fog worker? It's about what Cal Ripken makes every time he comes to bat.

Thus London Fog's troubles bring us to a couple of realities in the modern American workplace: the vanishing opportunities for ordinary blue collar laborers; and the cruel, nearly surrealistic distance between the nation's have-nots and its haves, who are not only baseball players (currently averaging $1.4 million in salary), basketball players (averaging $2.2 million), and those poor slobs forced to labor at professional football for an average of only $795,000 a year.

The haves also include various manner of corporate executives whose salaries are breathtaking. Last year, the CEOs of the nation's 500 largest companies averaged $4.06 million in pay and other compensations. Just for perspective, this was 197 times the pay of the average worker, which is as good a barometer of piggishness as you can find.

How did the bosses earn such big bucks? By increasing company profits. How did they increase these profits? In a lot of cases, by eliminating jobs, or by bullying employees into taking pay cuts, by cutting benefits, by holding the threat of job elimination over employees' heads.

Outside London Fog's Park Circle plant last week, a woman employee asked, somewhat rhetorically, "Where do we go now? I don't know. Everybody always said we were making too much money. Yeah, $6.90, that's what the newspaper said. But I make, well, not quite $6 an hour."

She glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching her talk to a reporter. In the current context, such concern is poignant. The job vanishes in weeks, the money's pitiful, but still: Everyone at London Fog's under orders not to talk.

So a call is made to its public relations firm, Crawley, Haskins and Rodgers, in Philadelphia, where company spokesman Kevin Brockenbrough says, yes, it's the classic modern story: It's too costly now to produce things in America. The work will now be done "in the Far East, one of those Asian countries. I don't know how much money they make there."

In America, the average apparel worker makes $8 an hour. In Mexico, $2 an hour. In Bangladesh, 25 cents an hour. In Baltimore, the average baseball ticket at Oriole Park now goes for $15.66, which helps to pay for $14,000 at-bats for Cal Ripken. But, when even the pitiful $14,000-a-year factory jobs are now to be eliminated, who will be buying tickets to the ballgames?

This isn't about baseball, of course, nor even about Cal Ripken, who merely makes what the territory will allow. It's about the increasing winner-take-all mentality of the American workplace, where the inflation-adjusted earnings of those in the highest brackets rose by 10.7 percent from 1980 to 1995 while the median worker's wages fell by 3.6 percent and those in the lowest brackets fell by 9.6 percent.

"How much," Kevin Brockenbrough was asked now, "does Robert Gregory make?"

Gregory is chairman of the board of London Fog.

"I don't know," Brockenbrough said. "It's a privately held company, so it's private."

"But he makes more than those factory workers making $6.90 an hour?"

"Yes, but I think the jobs are a little different."

Of course they are. To suggest otherwise is juvenile. But where, in a nation where CEOs make 197 times the wages of their average workers, is a sense of economic fairness?

Meanwhile, as London Fog's employees begin to look for new work, the sensitive souls in Washington talk of removing long-term welfare recipients from the program and putting them to work. But where? London Fog? Are you kidding? They're the newest on line for welfare, newly arrived to replace the welfare veterans who couldn't find work in the old days of abundant blue-collar jobs and have even less chance in the new world.

Unless, of course, they try Oriole Park. There might be jobs there: as ushers, as beer vendors, as ticket takers. The pay's around minimum wage. But you get to see what a $14,000 at-bat looks like.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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