Levi's set to close last U.S. factory

Mimicking competitors, all-American jeans brand to have all plants overseas

October 19, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN ANTONIO -- Clara Flores once thought she had the job of a lifetime, even, perhaps, the most solid job in America.

She made blue jeans. Not just any blue jeans.

Levi's.

"It was the original," Flores said. "Wherever you went, it was the same Levi's blue jeans."

The $4.2 billion company, founded 150 years ago by Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant who settled in San Francisco to outfit the gold miners, has turned out more than 3.5 billion pairs of the sturdy denim jeans with their trademark rivets at the seams and little red pocket tab, becoming an American icon right up there with Coca-Cola, Hollywood, the Colt .45 and baseball.

But by the end of the year, the last pair of Levi's made in America will roll off the sewing and finishing lines at the factory here, another casualty of the shrinking homegrown apparel industry that since 1995 has halved its domestic work force in favor of cheaper foreign labor. It will be a setback, too, for San Antonio, home to the Alamo, thronged with tourists but suffering from a string of factory closings, although Toyota is building an $800 million plant scheduled to open in 2006.

Levi Strauss & Co.'s last three Canadian plants will close in March, the company announced last month, part of a restructuring that will cut its payroll from a height of 37,000 employees in 1996 to 9,750 by next year and leave none of its jeans production in North America.

The step follows the closing of its original plant in Valencia, Calif., last year, and of many other plants in the 1990s, when company revenues started dropping from a peak of $7 billion. In Texas, Levi Strauss closed eight plants in El Paso and others in Brownsville and the Rio Grande valley, one of the poorest areas in the United States.

The work will be contracted to suppliers in 50 countries, from the Caribbean to Latin America and Asia, where competitors, with few exceptions, have shifted their manufacturing or made jeans all along.

But those companies' jeans are not Levi's, which may be the most distinctive garment of the 20th century and remain a mainstay of the vintage clothing market, with 244 listings recently on eBay alone. (Levi Strauss itself bought a historic pair of rediscovered 1880s overalls two years ago for $46,532.) Levi's also spawned a fiercely competitive jeans industry. In the past 10 years alone, some 200 new brands have entered the market, Levi Strauss says.

"Levi's are so identified with America," said Bruce Raynor, president of Unite, the apparel workers' union, who laid the job losses to American trade policy and the might of merchandising behemoths such as Wal-Mart, which increasingly set the competitive pace of the industry and scour the world for low-cost labor. Levi's themselves are now sold at Wal-Mart.

Philip A. Marineau, who left PepsiCo in 1999 to lead the family-owned Levi Strauss Co. as president and chief executive, said he saw little symbolism in the company's American production shutdown.

"Consumers are used to buying products from all over the world," Marineau said on the telephone from company headquarters in San Francisco. "The issue is not where they're made. For most people that's not gut-wrenching anymore."

But it is for employees like Flores, 54, an $18-an-hour hem sewer and Unite's local president. Flores, who has worked for the company for 24 years, will soon join 819 fellow employees in San Antonio lining up for severance benefits, retraining classes and grants to start their own businesses. Workers said the company had a progressive record on providing for its laid-off employees, but Flores, noting the four weeks of annual paid vacation and family medical and dental benefits for $24 a week, asked, "Where are we ever going to find something like this?"

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