DES PLAINES, Ill. — Hundreds of union workers packed a lunchroom at the Hart Schaffner & Marx manufacturing plant here May 11 and voted unanimously to stage a sit-in at their factory if a new owner tries to shut it down. The company, also known as Hartmarx Corp., employs 600 people here and is one of the last and largest remaining suit makers in the U.S.
“They want to shut down our jobs and we are not going to let that happen,” said Ruby Sims at the midday rally. Sims has worked at Hartmarx for 32 years. “If the bank wants to shut us down then we will sit in. We are going to do whatever it takes to save our jobs,” she said. “Are you with us,” she shouted to the sea of workers packed inside the large room. In a loud, high-spirited cheer they shouted back, “Yes!”
The workers, represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, are fighting to keep their jobs after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January. The filing came after Wells Fargo bank, Hartmarx’s chief lender, reduced the company’s credit line.
The company is in the process of being sold. Union leaders fear the new owners being sought by Wells Fargo will shut down the operation and liquidate the business, which has been operating since 1872.
Wells Fargo received a $25 billion federal bailout 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. The workers here say that they, not the banks, need to get bailed out.
Hartmarx has manufacturing plants here and in Rock Island, Ill., as well as a warehouse in Indiana. It is the largest maker of men’s tailored clothing and one of, if not the only, men’s topcoat manufacturer in North America. The Chicago-based company employs 3,500 nationwide.
It has become known for making suits worn by President Barack Obama. Obama wore one of the company’s tuxedos at his inauguration.
Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), who spent 13 years cutting linings for men’s suits at the Rock Island Hartmarx plant, told the workers the suit he was wearing was made at Hartmarx and said he has four more just like it. He praised the workers for their hard work in making such wonderful American union-made products.
Wells Fargo will have a fight on its hands, Hare said.
“If Wells Fargo tries to liquidate this great company, I promise I will be their worst nightmare on the floor of House of Representatives,” he said, declaring that banks that got federal bailout money have a “moral obligation” to workers like those at Hartmarx.
“These workers are the faces of this country. This is tough work and I know you work hard each and every day,” said Hare. “I’m going to send letter after letter, make call after call, because I am not going to give up on this fight.”
Many at Hartmarx have been working at the Des Plaines plant for decades. They come from all parts of the world.
Dorothy Butcher, who is African American, has worked at the plant for 43 years. “Where am I going to find another job?” she asked. “It’s hard enough for young people to find jobs these days.”
Antoniatta Mendoza, originally from Italy, has worked at Hartmarx for the last 25 years.
“It hurts that this company may close,” she said. “I have a son in college and I don’t know how I am going to afford my mortgage. I have kids to feed. It’s not right. We all need to work to support our families.
Maria Figueroa has worked here for 20 years. “Now I have to struggle some more just to survive,” she said. “Things are not easy now. I thought at least I have a job to pay my bills, but without that, what am I going to do?”
Martin Padilla, originally from Colombia, has been at Hartmarx for five years. He said he and co-workers came to the lunchroom rally “to support our union and secure our future.” He added, “We’ve been in business for the last 120 years and hopefully we can be in business for the next 120 years.”
Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias assured the workers he will terminate any state business with Wells Fargo unless the bank stops trying to liquidate the company. Wells Fargo is custodian of an $8 billion state portfolio and holds the state treasurer’s office cash and other financial assets.
Workers at Hartmarx are borrowing a page from the playbook of workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory. In that situation, Bank of America cut off credit to the company, leading to its closure last December. The workers and their union fought back, staging a six-day occupation at the plant, which gained national and international attention including support from the Obama administration. The workers eventually won a settlement with the bank, securing sick leave and vacation pay they were owed, and health benefits. Today, new owners have reopened the plant and all 260 former Republic workers are in the process of being re-hired, represented by their union.
The Hartmarx workers’ struggle signal what could be a growing cascade of future battles if working families and their unions continue to be hit by company closings perpetrated by banks or other financial institutions.
Unite Here President Bruce Raynor told the Hartmarx workers they are at the center of today’s labor struggles and represent the movement’s backbone.
“We are not asking for charity,” said Raynor. “We are willing to work and we want that right to be respected. The people who got this country in trouble in the first place are the giant banks and now it’s time to bail out the workers. We will not go down quietly.”
plozano @ pww.org