Locke Insulators on strike, and some fear it could close Workers are unhappy with medical, pay offers


October 02, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Unionized workers at one of South Baltimore's oldest businesses walked off their jobs early yesterday, beginning a strike against the plant's Japanese owners that, some workers fear, could lead to a permanent closing of the plant.

The strike at Locke Insulators, which manufactures electrical insulators in an art deco building off Hanover Street, is the first at the plant in 13 years, said union President Craige Turner. For the past quarter-century, 103-year-old Locke has been owned by NGK Insulators Ltd. of Nagoya, Japan.

The walkout came at 12: 01 a.m. -- the moment that the company's three-year contract with Local 120 of the United Electrical Radio Machine Workers of America expired. Several of the 186 workers said they are committed to a long strike because of deep disenchantment with Locke's proposals on raises, medical plans and salary.

"If it takes two weeks, two months, a year, we don't care," said Charles Schultz, 60, a unionized inspector who has worked at Locke for 33 years. "We're saying we'd rather have the company close down than have any more give-backs to Locke."

Over the years, Locke officials have repeatedly raised the possibility of closing the plant permanently. Three years ago, that possibility prompted the union to agree to several rollbacks, including pay cuts. And Bruce Klipple, a union negotiator, said the company again this year has raised the prospect of closing. Two decades ago, Locke employed about 500. Downsizing has cut that figure by nearly two-thirds, but the plant remains a central part of South Baltimore life.

Yesterday, Locke executives and salaried employees reported for work. Joe McClellan, Locke's manager for administration, declined to say what effect the strike would have on production.

McClellan, while declining to discuss negotiations or the possibility of closing, said "the company is not doing that well" and has been "a victim" of the deregulation of the utility industry, from which Locke draws its customers. "We consider ourselves one of the best employers in Baltimore, and we've been responsive to the union in every area," he said.

Executives at NGK, which reported record worldwide profits last year but has refused to release specific figures for its Locke operation, declined to comment.

Talks between Locke and the union broke off at 2: 30 a.m., after a union proposal was rejected. Union negotiators said they were so frustrated that they did not wait to hear the company's final offer. Another round of negotiations is tentatively scheduled for this morning.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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