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GST workers voice fears over job, benefit losses

November 20, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

Losing a job, keeping health insurance or losing a prized day shift were among the concerns GST AutoLeather employees had Wednesday, one day after learning one of two local plants will close by 2004.

"It stinks," said 15-year employee Patsy Morris, of Hancock. Morris said she thinks she has enough seniority to keep her job at the tanning plant until her planned retirement in May.

Mark Lecher, president and chief operating officer of the automotive leather manufacturer formerly known as Garden State Tanning, said Tuesday that the cutting plants near Williamsport and in Reading, Pa., will close by early 2004. A second GST cutting plant will open by the end of the year in Mexico, where labor is cheaper and several customers are located.

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The Governor Lane Boulevard cutting plant has 215 union and about 30 nonunion employees, some of whom may have enough seniority to transfer to the tanning plant on Clear Spring Road and bump an employee with less seniority, company and union officials said.

The Reading plant employs about 100 people.

Bobby Colvin, president of Local 658T for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, said there are 450 to 500 union employees at the tanning plant and about 126 nonunion workers.

Lecher said the company was in the process of updating the number of employees at each plant.

Colvin estimated that with the cutting plant closing and the local tanning plant expanding, eventually about 150 local jobs could be lost.

The layoffs will be staggered, Lecher and Colvin said. "We'll probably see 60 to 100 people laid off right before Thanksgiving and Christmas," Colvin said.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Lecher said he doesn't expect anyone to be laid off next Wednesday, but said that was the project team's decision.

Dozens of employees stopped at the Williamsport American Legion on Wednesday for one of three regularly scheduled union meetings.

"What do you want me to say? We're all losing jobs. They're all going to Mexico," said Betty Barnes, an 18-year employee.

"And it's nice that they did it all around Christmastime," said Robin Hovermale, 34, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

"We built this company and it's a slap in the face," said Barnes, 41, of Williamsport.

Linda Schelle said she took a pay cut in January when the company switched from hand cutting to roll presses. That meant lost bonuses and a pay cut that cost her $20,000 this year, she said.

Lecher said the switch to roll presses meant pay cuts for some employees and increases for others.

Colvin said GST AutoLeather employees earn $30,000 to $50,000 a year. The average employee makes $13 to $17 an hour and works 48 hours a week over six days.

Teri Blake said she and her husband, John, who both work at the cutting plant, have enough seniority that they should be able to transfer to the tanning plant.

They may end up taking turns, with one of them working while the other goes back to school, said Blake, 39, of Waynesboro, Pa. Blake said she wants to switch to a medical career because those jobs are permanent.

"Starting over, it's just ... ugh," Blake said.

At least one of the Blakes probably will work a night shift at the tanning plant so they can keep health insurance for themselves and their four children.

Several tanning plant employees fear their jobs will be the next to go to Mexico, or to China. Lecher recently announced plans for GST to operate leather cutting and finishing plants in China.

Lecher said he cannot predict what will happen in five to 10 years, but said corporate officials want to maintain as much of the company here as they can. The corporate headquarters for GST is east of Maugansville.

The company invested $1 million in the tanning plant recently and may invest another $1 million soon, Lecher said.

Tim Troxell, executive director for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said the EDC is in negotiations with GST about financial assistance to upgrade the tanning plant. Any deal involving public money would include a requirement for GST to create and/or maintain a certain number of jobs over a certain number of years, Troxell said.

"Anything in textiles is probably going to another country sooner or later," said Tim Lewis, 46, of Hagerstown, the union steward at the tanning plant.

"I feel for a lot of these younger people that are going to get bumped," Lewis said. "A lot of these younger people might want to start looking for a job."

"We feel bad for the Reading plant, knowing they're going to lose their jobs because it could have been us," Lewis said.

"It's the corporation. I understand it's their job to save money because it's a business, but nobody cares about the workers anymore," Lewis said.

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