Employees want the largest creditor for the 130-year-old Chicago area company, Wells Fargo Bank, to help it reorganize instead of shutting it down. In the event that the factory closes or is liquidated, they will not leave.
As CBS 2's Susan Carlson reports, just months ago, the company formerly known as Hart, Schaffner & Marx, which has its factory at 1680 E. Touhy Ave. in Des Plaines, was best known for making the favorite suits of President Barack Obama. But that has changed.
Wells Fargo has received $25 billion in federal bailout money, and has the option of either selling the bankrupt Hartmarx to bidders or forcing the company to shut down. If that happened, the 600 workers at the factory would lose their jobs.
"We are all upset that, they should give us another chance to make sure that somebody comes in who actually wants to bid," said Workers United Local President Ruby Sims. "Take the bid. Let us work. We deserve to finish paying those bills, paying for our houses, taking care of our children."
May 12, 2009
They came from many countries to work at the Hart Schaffner & Marx plant. They shouted and jeered at the capitalist powers arrayed against them. They became a political sensation with national impact.
Perhaps so. But the events just described are not those that led some 600 workers to stage a boisterous rally Monday at the Hartmarx Corp. plant in suburban Des Plaines. Rather, they took place in 1910 at the famed suitmaker's West Side Chicago production plant. That strike led to the creation of the United Garment Workers union.
Life, and the union movement, have changed substantially since then.
At least three workers died in the Chicago garment strike a century ago. Fortunately, violence is virtually out of the question today.
In most other respects, the union movement is weaker than it was. Some 30,000 Hart Schaffner & Marx employees struck in 1910. Today, there are not that many textile workers left in all of Chicago.
The workers a century ago were fighting owners who unilaterally cut wages, ran an unsafe workplace and insisted on 70-hour workweeks with no overtime pay. Employers could count on uniformed police and hired goons to crack down on labor disturbances.
Today, the workers are fighting forces that seem all the more powerful because they are so hard to define. They are the powers of capital flows, of financial crisis and global change. Hartmarx is, after all, in bankruptcy.
A new owner that comes in may be tempted to shut the U.S. operations in five states and Canada and move production to China or another country where quality is nearly as good and costs run half as much.
This is not the fault of Hartmarx's U.S. workers, of course. But it will prove difficult for a costly, unionized workforce to become part of the solution to Hartmarx's problems.
Marina Franceschi, a 54-year veteran who emigrated from Puerto Rico, leaves her home at 3:30 a.m., riding two hours on buses and trains to her job pressing hand-sewn suits. "I pray. I pray that they're going to stay in business."
Of course one feels sympathy for Franceschi and her colleagues. They are rightly proud of their work, and their Chinese, Polish, Puerto Rican, Mexican, African-American and Italian origins speak to the enduring resonance of the American dream.
Quiquiang Huang, 39, and Yan Huang, 26, arrived from Guangzhou, China, just four years ago. They work for Sydney Branford, 64, a press room manager from Jamaica.
Speeches and rallies -- and the sit-in that might follow -- will not change the economics facing Hartmarx. What is important, though, is how politics and union pressure are coming into play.
Hartmarx workers learned from those at Republic Windows and Doors, who staged a sit-in last year after the company shut abruptly and refused to pay severance. Bank of America -- a recipient of federal bailout funds -- eventually made money available.
Now Hartmarx workers are leaning on Wells Fargo & Co. -- the bank providing the funding to keep Hartmarx in business -- to make certain the right buyer winds up with control of the company.
Yucaipa Cos. of Los Angeles and Emerisque from London have shown an interest in keeping Hartmarx in business. But Mistral Equity Partners of New York -- the bidder the workers are worried about -- has indicated it would do better by selling the company's brand names and shutting down its operations, say sources knowledgeable about the talks. Politicians have gotten involved too. Wells Fargo, another recipient of government money, can hardly ignore State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias' threat to take away $8 billion that the bank manages for the state.
Bob Bruno, an assistant professor of labor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said unions are taking advantage of the fact that the banks have taken government money and may need more of it in the future. "The banks are exposed," Bruno said. "The unions are smart enough to see where they can apply the pressure."
The recession is creating a strange new solidarity among management and labor. Among the 600 workers gathered in the cafeteria Monday at the production plant stood, here and there a few men in spiffy Hart Schaffner & Marx suits. As national leaders from the Service Employees International Union exhorted the workers to fight on, the men in suits applauded -- more than politely, I might add.
They were managers of the plant -- people whose jobs might be saved, too, if the right buyer gets the plant. In this labor fight, it's not blue collar versus the suits. It's everyone involved in making suits, scrambling desperately to save their jobs.
Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune