BEACHWOOD, Ohio - Braving brutal winter winds, workers from the Hugo Boss clothing firm picketed an upscale suburban mall, asking help to stop the company from closing one of the last remaining domestic clothing plants and moving to Turkey.
Hugo Boss, a German maker of top-of-the-line men's suits and pants, notified its nearly 400 employees over the Christmas holiday that it planned to shut its plant in Brooklyn, a suburb of Cleveland, when the current contract with Workers United expires at the end of April.
The union, part of the Service Employees International Union, has vowed to fight, and set up an informational picket Thursday on the edge of Beachwood Mall in front of Nordstrom's, one of the largest U.S. retailers of Hugo Boss suits.
As passing motorists honked in support, the workers held signs and chanted, "Keep Cleveland working." A delegation went into the store to ask support for the effort. The Rev. Bob Strommen, a leader of Cleveland Jobs with Justice, told the picketers that the delegation got a friendly reception but was referred to Nordstrom's regional office. He said Hugo Boss suits were on sale at the store for $795.
Union representative Sue Brown said the company's plant closing announcement came as a shock since talks involving the offices of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and other public officials on providing the company with economic incentives had been hopeful.
"The company is not in trouble," she said. "They have never denied the plant is profitable. They just want cheap labor. It's about greed."
The company had previously offered a one-year trial experiment to save the plant based on slashing wages from $12.80 to $8.30, she said.
"I couldn't support my family on that," said Anthony Senart, 23, a sewing machine operator at the plant for the past six years. "We have two little girls." Senart said his wife, Erika, is also employed at Hugo Boss so closing the plant would be devastating. His mother has also worked at the plant for 31 years, he said.
"Hugo Boss is making lots of money off us," Senart said. "Why should they have to cut our wages."
The company "spends millions on fancy ads and sports sponsorships like competitive sailing, tennis, golf, auto racing and soccer," stated a flyer handed out by the picketers. The amount the company might save by closing its Cleveland-area plant "is only a few million dollars ... a drop in the Hugo Boss bucket," the flyer said.
"This is a fight, for all unions, for all workers," Clayola Brown, one of the union's international vice presidents, told a recent meeting held by the North Shore AFL-CIO.
"Ohio has been targeted for too long. There are no more entry level manufacturing jobs," she said.
"We need help from churches, public officials and the whole labor movement. We must make the corporations and the right wing back up or they will roll over everyone."
Cleveland-area clergy have scheduled a breakfast Feb. 2 to discuss how to help. The union is appealing to supporters to e-mail Hugo Boss CEO Dr. Andreas Stockert urging that the plant be saved. The e-mail address is: Andreas_Stockert@hugoboss.com. Below, workers tell their story in a two-minute video on the fight.
Photo: Deb Kline