Layoffs planned as plant in Western Md. closes, work shifts to Mexico

GST provides leather for auto seat covers

November 20, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A Hagerstown company that produces automotive leather is moving its Washington County cutting operations to Mexico and expects to lay off more than half of the 215 workers at the Maryland plant.

GST AutoLeather Inc. will open a facility in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, by the end of the year and close its cutting plant in Williamsport, southwest of Hagerstown, by early next year.

About the same time, the company will also close a Reading, Pa., manufacturing facility that employs 100 to consolidate operations at its 550-person manufacturing plant, also in Williamsport. GST's headquarters will remain in Hagerstown.

Mark D. Lecher, GST's president and chief operating officer, said yesterday that he hopes to move 60 to 100 workers from the Williamsport cutting plant to the manufacturing plant but that the job impact is still being discussed.

GST produces leather that other companies sew into seat covers, and much of that work has migrated south, he said.

The company opened its first Mexico cutting facility in 1997. "Increasingly more and more of our production is destined for that region ... so it just made sense logistically to be there, close to our customers," Lecher said.

Harold Bock, regional director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which represents workers at the Williamsport cutting plant, said yesterday that he was surprised by the news.

"We're certainly disappointed ... and are going to try to do anything we can to convince the company that that's a mistake," Bock said. "There's been meetings about the cutting room and being able to [make] it more efficient over the last few months, but this is the first I'm hearing of a decision to move it to Mexico.

"It makes absolutely no sense to me. The shipping costs would eat up anything that they could possibly save in labor costs."

Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said he and state officials knew the future of the Williamsport facility was in question, particularly after a short strike by workers in June, when contract negotiations broke down. But he said the agencies were unable to top the benefits Mexico offered the company, including lower wages.

Troxell said he expects to seal deals shortly with three companies - two outside the county and one looking to expand - that would add more jobs to the area than GST will cut.

"It won't be leather, but hopefully the skill sets will be somewhat similar so that many of those people getting laid off ... would be able to just roll right over into new employment," Troxell said.

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