Streaming into bright Spring sunlight in the parking lot in front of the Hugo Boss men’s suit plant in Brooklyn, Ohio, workers shouted, “We did it!” and “We have our jobs!”
They had just voted 142 -32 to accept a new three-year contract won by their union at 3 am that morning ending a battle, that seemed at times hopeless after the company announced in December it would close the plant April 27 and shift production to Turkey and Slovenia.
“I’ve got my job and she’s got to eat,” said Anthony Senart, 23, holding the hand of his 6-year old daughter, Kaira. Senart had been laid off two weeks earlier as the plant gradually went into a complete shut down. “I’ll go back to work in six weeks. I feel excellent. I get to keep working.”
Tired but proud, Bruce Raynor, the National President of Workers United SEIU gave details of the new agreement at a hastily called press conference with the union members, their supporters and public officials including Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.
“The workers stood up like champions,” he said. “But we could not have done this alone. We had the support of our political leaders, unions around the world, Danny Glover, religious leaders and this entire community.”
The union, he said, had to take a pay cut, “but we kept the average wage above $10 an hour. We kept the health insurance, 11 holidays and the pensions.”
“The workers,” he said “still have decent jobs, will pay taxes and be able to support their families.”
Under threat of sanctions from the National Labor Relations Board, the company returned to the bargaining table April 21, but, Raynor said, the breakthrough came because of “global pressure.”
Reversal of a plant-closing decision like this is “almost unprecedented,” he said, but in the image-conscious fashion industry, brand and label are key. “Hugo Boss’s reputation was on the line.”
The plant closing was protested by state pension funds in Ohio, California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, which had hundreds of millions invested in Permira, a British private equity firm with controlling interest in Hugo Boss.
Sen. Sherrod Brown had threatened to hold hearings and Congressman Dennis Kucinich and local officials spoke at rallies organized by the union, the North Shore AFL-CIO and Cleveland Jobs With Justice. Actor and social activist Danny Glover met with the workers on a plant tour and organized a boycott of Hugo Boss apparel at the recent Oscars ceremony.
Protests also came from IG Metall, the powerful German union that sits on Hugo Boss’s board and Spanish unions picketed an international tennis tournament sponsored by the company.
“Even the Turkish unions signed letters of support,” Raynor said. “The workers of the world stuck together.”
But the bargaining was long and hard, he said. “At one am this morning they were still asking us to take $9 an hour. By 2 am we got it up to $10. The CEO was on the phone all night from Germany. We had their attention.”
The company hired round the clock security guards and locked down the plant when negotiations resumed to prevent workers from occupying it but now it will reopen as soon as fabric arrives and the cutters can be brought back, Raynor said. It should be fully operational in six to eight weeks.
Whereas previously the workers had been forced to accept short weeks, they will now be guaranteed 40 hours work, he said. “And the company must give us 140 days notice if they get the bright idea they want to close it again.”
Photo: Ned Davis