USF&G and the myth of job security

January 22, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

There's no emotional insurance for the folks at USF&G, not after this week's announcement that the firm is being sold to a Minnesota company, and not after talk of maybe 1,500 jobs being lost, and notwithstanding the outwardly confident mood of employees filing out of work the other day.

The employees said they were hopeful things would work out fine. They said company executives had assured them that many Baltimore jobs could be saved. Of course, the employees said this with television cameras pointing at their faces, but we'll deal with that matter in a moment.

For now, the issue is jobs. USF&G's been bought by St. Paul Cos. of Minnesota in a deal said to be worth $3.5 billion to USF&G but instant loss of security to its employees. And, while the announcement was being made, company execs were busy issuing statements from both sides of their mouths.

"They will play a responsible role in the Baltimore community," said Norman P. Blake Jr., chairman of USF&G, who brokered the Minnesota deal and will join St. Paul as vice chairman after the merger. "They are finding ways to maintain as much as possible a sizable employee population in Baltimore."

And yesterday, Douglas Leatherdale, chairman, president and chief executive of St. Paul, met with USF&G employees and declared it had not been determined where jobs would be cut.

But, in an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Leather-dale said the majority of the job cuts would probably be in Baltimore.

Confronted with this contradiction yesterday, Leatherdale said it was "way too premature" to comment on any of this.

Well, fine.

Around here, many of us imagined USF&G was part of the brand-new Baltimore, the Baltimore struggling to cast off its old image of a gritty, roll-up-the-sleeves (fill in your own cliche) blue-collar community.

The factory jobs were gone, but the new jobs would pull people out of the sweaty steel mills and the assembly lines and put them in clean and neat places such as insurance firms and banks and hotels and restaurants filled with those lured here by the booming tourism industry.

The past was Sparrows Point. The future was USF&G - and it was Alex. Brown & Sons and Monumental General Corp. and MNC Financial Inc., too, and it was Baltimore Bancorp. and PHH Corp. and UNC Inc., and CSX Corp. and Merry-Go-Round and Loyola Capital Corp.

But, in the past decade, every one of these firms has either been acquired and moved its corporate headquarters out of Baltimore, or simply gone out of business. (Not to mention the local banks absorbed by out-of-state institutions, and the jobs subsequently cut in the months after executives insisted such a thing wouldn't happen.)

It's what we all live with now. The unions have lost their muscle, the management types score points every time they downsize, and the phrase "job security" has become an oxymoron.

Last weekend, for example, employees at Development Design Group, a downtown architectural firm, were called on to work considerable extra hours to finish long-term projects. On Monday and Tuesday, they were informed they'd been laid off.

"Not true," said Roy Higgs, chief executive officer, when questioned about this yesterday.

"Then what's true?" he was asked.

"Not layoffs," he said, "but reductions, sure."

"Is there a distinction?" he was asked.

"That's for you to figure out," he said.

That's also for employees to figure out. All they know is, several dozen of them are out of work. Higgs wouldn't discuss numbers, but one employee said the work force was "reduced" by about half. Higgs refused to comment.

One of the "reduced" employees said, "It just shows, there's no security today. You can't trust anyone. They pull you in for a whole weekend, with no overtime, and work you into the night. And you come in Monday with the work done, and you get the boot."

This employee wishes to remain anonymous. It reminds us of those USF&G workers Tuesday with television cameras pointing their way. They wished to say nothing that might offend any corporate executives deciding their fate.

It took me back 18 months, to the closing of London Fog. The company closed its doors and removed 281 people from their livelihoods. In its final week, a woman stood outside the company's Park Circle plant and said, "Where do we go now? I don't know. Everybody always said we were making too much money."

The woman made $6 an hour. She looked around nervously. She didn't want her boss seeing her talking to a reporter. The job was vanishing, the money was pitiful, but still: Everybody was under orders not to talk. The woman worried: What else can they do to me?

In fact, London Fog was supposed to be a remnant of the past. Who supports a family at $6 an hour anymore? The future of Baltimore wasn't London Fog factory jobs, it was USF&G and white-collar jobs of all kinds.

Only, that list of vanished white-collar corporations keeps growing, and so does the loss of jobs, and it sends a chill through everyone who once imagined a thing called security.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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