Struggle to save jobs at Winchester continues

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The struggle to save unionized manufacturing jobs and continue the 140-year production of Winchester sporting arms in New Haven has attracted national and international attention as the Belgian Herstal Group prepares to close its US Repeating Arms Company (USRAC) factory doors on March 31.

Workers and community activists began organizing when the January announcement was made, bringing public attention to the devastating impact the closing will have on the 180 workers, the African American community where the plant is located, and the entire city. The company has enjoyed $17 million in tax abatements which are tied to the retention of jobs.

A neighborhood meeting, plant gate rally and public hearing initiated by the Winchester Citizens Ad Hoc Committee have forced action to hold the company accountable. City officials are seeking cooperation from the company to find a new buyer and keep the Winchester trademark in New Haven, while at the same time preparing for possible legal action if necessary. Three potential buyers have expressed interest.

The company dismantled USRAC department by department in violation of a 1993 tax abatement agreement with the city, according to testimony by Winchester workers before a committee of the New Haven Board of Aldermen on March 16.

“They came in here like thieves and robbers,” said toolmaker Larry Edwards.

If production is moved, the agreement requires six months notice and reimbursement of all abatements. The company claims it is closing and not relocating.

Workers’ testimony confirmed removal of machinery to Columbia, S.C., during Christmas shutdown, and earlier removal of the wood shop, barrel shop and other production to Portugal and Japan. A new Russian Winchester plant was announced after the company gave notice it was going out of business.

The union, IAM Victory Lodge 609, is in tough negotiations over severance pay. The workers will be eligible for Trade Readjustment Act assistance.

“This company has taken the collective skills, experience and knowledge for 140 years of worksmanship and moved it to continue making profits,” Craig Gauthier, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee, told the aldermen. He urged them to “take appropriate legal action” and require the company to continue wages and benefits for six months, continue seniority for five years, guaranteeing everyone severance and pensions, and to continue health benefits for two years.

“You can make history by fulfilling this resolution,” Gauthier testified. “It is only just, since the city and state invested their time, money and most precious resources — our workers’ lives — in this matter.”

“I watched Winchester from the ninth floor of my apartment building as a kid,” said Don Harris, recalling his first day of work in 1995 as a dream come true. “It’s wrong to get tax money and then close.”

Carey Dawson started working at USRAC in 2000. “Someone has to step up to the plate so that after the smoke clears and USRAC is gone we will still have jobs at the New Haven plant,” Dawson said.