Des Plaines, Ill. — Six-hundred union workers at the Hart Schaffner & Marx’s manufacturing plant here, which is one of the last and largest U.S. suit makers, are demanding it’s time that they, and not the banks, get bailed out. The workers are fighting to keep their jobs after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January. The filing followed reductions in its credit line by the bank.
The company, otherwise known as Hartmarx Corp., is in the process of being sold and has manufacturing pants here and in Rock Island, Ill., as well as a warehouse in Indiana. Union leaders fear the new owner being sought out by the company’s chief lender, Wells Fargo & Co., is planning to shut down the operation and liquidate the business, which has been operating since 1872. Nearly 1,000 people could be jobless.
Wells Fargo received a $25 billion federal bailout in taxpayer assistance through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Critics charge that money was supposed to be used to help stabilize the financial markets, make credit more readily available to working families, and ultimately, save jobs, not lose them.
Many of the workers at Hartmarx have been working at the Des Plaines plant for decades and come from all parts of the world.
“This company has blessed us for a lot of years,” said Ruby Sims, one of the workers during a rally at the plant May 7.
“I’ve been here for 31 years. If you lay me off, then lay me off, but don’t close the door on me,” said Sims.
Sims said many workers at the company have small children and many, including her, are single parents.
“Give us a break,” said Sims. “Give us that second chance that we need because we need survival and we need it right now, not next year, but today,” she said.
Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1, said Wells Fargo has to make a decision to either sell the company to owners who want to keep operations running or sell to owners who want to put people out of work.
“It’s time to make a long term investment,” said Balanoff. “They need to give the money to an investor who is going to keep this plant open and keep jobs here and keep our economy moving in the right direction,” he said.
Balanoff added, “We know that we’re in the biggest economic crisis of our lifetime. We need to figure out what type of recovery we are going to have. Are we going to have a recovery for the guys at the top who created this problem or are we going to have a recovery for working families?”
Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is threatening to pull state business from Wells Fargo unless the bank stops trying to liquidate the company. Wells Fargo is custodian of an $8 billion state portfolio and is responsible for holding the state treasurer’s office cash and other financial assets including bookkeeping and settlements.
“We want to make sure that state and federal businesses invest in American companies and in American jobs,” said Giannoulias at the rally.
The Hartmarx Company is the largest maker of men’s tailored clothing and one of, if not the only, men’s topcoat manufacturer in North America. Hartmarx employs 3,500, including 1,000 at its plants in Des Plaines and Rock Island.
U.S. Reps. Phil Hare and Jan Schakowsky, both Democrats in Ill., have expressed support for the workers and plan to fight alongside them to keep their jobs and the plant open.
Union leaders say Wells Fargo has a fight on its hands. They claim the Hartmarx workers are prepared to stage a sit-in at the Des Plaines plant similar to what the Republic Windows and Doors workers did last January.
In that situation, Bank of America cut off credit to the Chicago based Republic Windows factory, leading to the closure of that company. The workers and their union fought back, staging a six-day occupation at the plant, which gained national and international attention. The workers eventually won a settlement with the bank, securing sick leave and vacation pay they were owed, including health care benefits. Today, new owners have reopened the plant and all the former Republic workers are expected to be rehired, represented by their union.
Many claim the victory at Republic Windows has inspired leaders in the labor movement, especially workers at the Hartmarx Company. They are ready to borrow a page from the Republic Windows playbook and plan to fight for their future too.
Joe Costigan, treasurer of Workers United also addressed the crowd saying, “We’re proud to make the very best suits in the country.” He continued, “We know they’re the very best because the President of the United States wears our suits.”
President Barack Obama, a buyer and fan of Hartmarx suits, wore one of the company’s signature tuxedos at his inauguration.
“We’re here to tell Wells Fargo that this company has been in business in the city of Chicago and the Chicago area for 120 years and that we’re going to be here for another 120 years,” said Costigan.