GST to close cutting plant

November 19, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

WILLIAMSPORT - GST AutoLeather announced Tuesday it will close its Williamsport and Reading Pa., cutting facilities by early next year and open a similar one in Mexico.

More than 200 area employees now must decide what career path to move toward in the wake of the decision.

One employee said he believes the company was not forthcoming with information and believes it is sad that his job is going to a foreign country.

Mark Lecher, president and chief operating officer of the automotive leather manufacturer, said the company will close its Williamsport II cutting facility in early 2004. Lecher said GST AutoLeather, formerly Garden State Tanning Inc., also will be closing its Pennsylvania cutting facility and moving some of those operations to the Williamsport I facility, which handles tanning and finishing operations.


Consolidation at the Reading plant likely will result in more jobs at the Williamsport I facility at 15717 Clear Spring Road, though not enough to accommodate all 215 of the employees currently employed at the Governor Lane Boulevard facility or the 100 employed to the north, Lecher said.

"It's our expectation that some people will be able to move into that facility, based on seniority," Lecher said.

Lecher said GST decided to close the two facilities as part of the company's overall "cost-cutting effort."

Meanwhile, GST will be opening its new cutting facility in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just south of the Texas border, in December.

Lecher said wages and logistical costs were among many reasons for opening the Mexican facility, the second cutting operation it has opened there since 1997. Lecher said GST ships most of its products to automotive companies that operate out of Mexico.

The company supplies automotive leather to many companies, including Toyota, Chrysler, Ford and Honda.

Still, Lecher said the company will continue to keep its roots in the area with the Williamsport I facility and its corporate headquarters, located on Crayton Boulevard east of Maugansville.

"This area for us is still very important for our global operations and will continue to be so," he said.

Leo Kendrick, a Hagerstown resident and an employee at the Williamsport cutting facility, said he is upset that the company was not more forthcoming with information about the timetable for the possible closing.

"I felt they should have let us know things a little sooner," said Kendrick, a 16-year GST employee. "They've been more or less playing games with us. All of a sudden, today, they tell us our jobs are going to Mexico."

Kendrick also said many employees were told their last day will be Dec. 19 or before.

"I could be laid off at any time before (Dec. 19)," Kendrick said. "And it's happening right before Christmas. It's going to be hard on a lot of people."

Kendrick said that even with seniority, it could take several months for workers from the cutting plant to move to the other Williamsport facility.

Bobby Colvin, president of UNITE Local 658T, said he blames politicians for policies he believes have allowed American jobs to slip elsewhere.

"We kinda knew this was going to come," Colvin said. "There's a lot of jobs going out of this country. In a way, GST is just trying to compete with their competitors. They can save a lot of money down there in Mexico."

He said severance packages still are being negotiated. Colvin said GST has been approved for a grant that will allow it to provide workers with 26 months of unemployment and 18 months' worth of reimbursements for those seeking full-time schooling/training.

"We have some senior people who would just rather go to school and get out of the whole tanning situation," Colvin said. "It doesn't look like it's going to be going for too many years."

Colvin said he has "a hunch" that the opening of a GST plant in China eventually will phase out the Williamsport I facility completely.

"GST has been in the area providing jobs in Washington County for 100 years," Colvin said. "If they close that facility, that's going to be a lot of jobs - 700 good jobs."

Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown/Washington County Economic Development Commission, said members of the commission have been in "constant discussions" with GST to ensure the prosperity of the Williamsport I facility. Troxell said they are working with the company on technical upgrades to help the business stay efficient to compete with foreign-based operations fueled by workers who are paid smaller wages.

"You have to make that (wage differential) up in productivity and technological advancements," Troxell said.

Troxell also said he does not believe the plant closure will have a large impact on the 3.7 percent unemployment rate in the county because other jobs will be available in the near future. He said there is hope because companies in the areas of light manufacturing and warehouse distribution either are relocating to or expanding operations in Washington County.

"The job numbers associated with those should offset that 215," Troxell said. "Obviously, we feel for the 215 that are losing their jobs. Hopefully, the skills they have will allow them to be employed by some of those companies that are expanding."

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