As another plant closes, well-paying jobs dry up

August 18, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Diane Jacobs sews the pockets on suit coats - as many as 200 a day - that are sold in stores such as Brooks Brothers. For 34 years, it's been a good job, with few layoffs, decent benefits and even a little show biz.

"Do you remember Lawrence Welk? We did suits for his show once," she says. "I'll never forget them because they were orange."

But factory jobs like hers, once the backbone of the economy, are becoming as much a relic as the bandleader whose "ah-one an' ah-two" would launch a nattily attired orchestra into a fizzy tune.

Jacobs is one of more than 200 workers who likely will be out of work soon, as another of the once-great Baltimore garment factories plans to close. Hartz & Co., a 113-year-old company that moved to Frederick in 1975, was part of a local industry that at the turn of the last century was second only to New York in cutting, sewing and assembling clothing.

Most of the garment trade is gone now, in Baltimore and elsewhere in the country. The reason is as clear as the shirt on your back - take a look at the labels of your clothes some time for a lesson in the global economy. I just did: My shirt was made in Hong Kong, my skirt in China, my underwear in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Cheaper labor overseas is the reason. And it's not just clothing, as anyone who used to work at the General Motors or Bethlehem Steel plants here knows.

Though Hartz and the union representing the factory workers say they are trying to keep the plant open by finding a buyer for the company, the trend shows no sign of reversing: America is less and less a country that makes stuff. We sell it, we buy it, but increasingly, whether it's clothes or cars or electronics, the manufacturing has moved overseas.

What's lost here is jobs, first and foremost. But even those of us who don't work in manufacturing lose something, too - that direct link to the things we consume so avidly.

I remember going to Flint, Mich., some years back to write about a GM strike. When I identified myself to an autoworker as a reporter from Baltimore, the first thing he said was that's where his brand-new Astro van was made.

Now, of course, we're known more for making doctors than cars - and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But those factory jobs were well-paying - some of those striking workers in Flint made more money than I did, and surely in more than a few cases paid for medical school for subsequent generations.

For those without aspirations of advanced degrees, though, the loss of factory work cuts deep. Someone like Jacobs now faces, at age 57, unemployment or perhaps retraining for an entirely different job.

"There's not much calling around here for what I do," she says.

It's just about the only job she's ever had. She started in May 1972 at a factory two blocks away from her Brunswick home, and followed the work to Frederick when Hartz consolidated its operations there. She dates back to a time when there still was a Mr. Hartz at the helm - Stanley Hartz, whose grandfather, Sigmund Hartz, created the company in 1893.

"It's really sad. I hate seeing it happen because, needless to say, I will be without a job," Jacobs says. "But it's sad there was a family that built this company that was around for 113 years and now it's closing."

Other local clothiers have preceded Hartz on this same path - London Fog and Jos. A. Bank stopped making apparel here long ago, as did such legendary factories as Henry Sonneborn & Co., which once churned out 3,000 suits a day. While newer Baltimore-based clothing manufacturers such as Under Armour have thrived, most garment manufacturing has gone overseas.

There are about 248,000 American workers employed in apparel manufacturing, a third of the number just a decade ago, according to a University of Maryland economist. And it's only going to go down from here on, says the Labor Department, which projects that employment in the apparel and textile industry will decline 46 percent by 2014.

"We're one of the few left," Hartz CEO Robert Watson says. "Everything's moving offshore."

Rumors that the company would close have swirled for some time and were finally confirmed this week when the state received Hartz' official notice, required of plants with more than 100 employees. The work force had been shrinking, and in 2004, employees were asked to take a one-year pay cut of 5 percent, but their original salary levels were never restored. Today, according to their union, the workers average about $10 an hour.

"I raised three children working there," says Jacobs, whose husband is disabled. "I was hoping to work another 10 years."

Now, though, she fears she will be among the first out the door - workers have been told that as they finish up the remaining orders, they'll be laid off. The pockets, Jacobs says, go on at the beginning of the assembly process.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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