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GST contemplates future

November 14, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

The president of GST AutoLeather, formerly Garden State Tanning Inc., said Thursday that company officials will decide whether to keep open the local cutting plant and whether to expand the tanning operation.

Final decisions have not been made about the possibility of laying off workers or closing the cutting plant, said Mark Lecher, president and chief operating officer of the automotive leather manufacturer. Lecher said he couldn't say if company officials will come up with a plan to prevent layoffs.

"The long-term viability of cutting in the mid-Atlantic region is very difficult," Lecher said.

GST opened a cutting plant in Mexico in 1997 and has another Mexican cutting plant expected to begin operations by December, Lecher said.

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Mexican cutting plants provide cheaper labor and are closer to the company's customers, Lecher said.

Transportation costs are expected to continue rising so it's more efficient to have those operations close to customers, he said.

"The challenge is how do we keep people actively employed here, long term," Lecher said.

The cutting plant on Governor Lane Boulevard employs 215 union and nonunion employees, Lecher said Thursday.

Employees at the cutting plant have been worried about job security because of a rumor that another cutting press, or roll press, would be moved out of the plant, said Bobby Colvin, president of Local 658T of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.

When one of those machines was moved to a company plant in Mexico in late summer, approximately 100 people were laid off, Colvin said.

GST has three shifts with 30 people per shift working on a roll press so Colvin estimated another 60 to 100 jobs could be lost if that press is moved out.

Lecher said another roll press is moving out of the local cutting plant, but he did not know when or to where.

Lecher said if company officials decide to expand the tanning operation on Clear Spring Road, that could mean more jobs.

Lecher did not know whether possible layoffs and expansion would offset each other so the current workers still would have jobs at GST.

If jobs are eliminated at the cutting plant, workers at the tanning operation could be affected because employees with seniority would have the opportunity to transfer to the tanning operation and take the jobs of employees with less seniority, Colvin said.

The company has asked the county for help in upgrading the tanning operation, Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission Executive Director Tim Troxell said.

EDC officials have known there was a possibility that jobs could be moved to the tanning operation from another state, Troxell said.

Lecher recently said the company had approximately 750 employees in Washington County at the cutting plant, tanning plant and corporate headquarters on Crayton Boulevard east of Maugansville.

Colvin said the number of local employees has decreased since layoffs following a June strike.

The number of local employees is closer to 680, with 450 employees at the tanning operation, Colvin said. Since the strike, about 100 employees, most of whom were at the cutting plant, were laid off, Colvin said. Some workers quit and took other jobs because they needed money to pay bills during the strike, he said.

Garden State was listed as the seventh largest employer in Washington County in the 2003 Business & Industry Directory published by the EDC. At that time, the company was reported to have 1,140 jobs in the county.

In June, union members went on strike for less than two weeks over wage and benefits issues.

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