NEW HAVEN, Conn. — When they arrived at work on Jan. 17, fresh from a holiday break, union workers at U.S. Repeating Arms were greeted with the announcement that the plant has been scheduled to close on March 31. The 186 workers, who produce Winchester sporting rifles, also discovered important machinery had already been removed by parent company Browning, part of the Belgium-owned Herstal Group.

The company had moved some production operations to a nonunion plant in South Carolina several years ago. It also produces Winchester rifles in Japan.

At a packed special meeting of Machinists Local 609 geared to fighting the closing, members were addressed by elected officials who pledged to do all they could to find a buyer and avert this tragedy for the workers and community.

“At a minimum, the scheduled plant closing must be delayed,” said Everett Corey of IAM District 25. “Workers and the community need time to work on plans for ensuring that manufacturing continues and the workers remain employed.”

The union will be reaching out and joining coalitions with the community, other unions, elected officials and anyone who wants to help, said Corey.

In a letter to the mayor and Board of Aldermen, the Citizens Ad Hoc Committee called for the city to explore seeking a court injunction to keep the plant open, initiation of eminent domain takeover procedures and revocation and recovery of tax benefits given to the company. The letter cited an amendment to a 1993 tax abatement agreement with the city that stipulates that work being done in New Haven will not be moved to other locations without the city’s consent.

“We don’t want another economic hole in the middle of our community,” said Craig Gauthier, chair of Citizens Ad Hoc, formed during a six-month strike at the plant in 1979. Gauthier urged a fight “to stop this bloodletting of our good, hard-fought-for union jobs.” The plant has been a major employer in the African American community for decades.

At a press conference following the union meeting, John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, and representatives of U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro joined state Sen. Martin Looney, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and eight members of the Board of Aldermen to pledge that they will do everything they can to find a buyer that will continue production, including seeking resources from the state’s Department of Economic Development.

Phone calls to Gov. Jodi Rell were urged, to demand that she meet with the union and resolve the crisis.