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Layoffs might begin in May

April 06, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT- Layoffs could begin as early as May at GST AutoLeather's retanning operation outside Williamsport, union representatives said Tuesday morning following a meeting with GST officials.

As many as 190 workers in the company's retanning department will be laid off, as will 50 employees in its finishing department, according to representatives of UNITE HERE LOCAL 658T.

Tuesday's meeting was one of the periodic updates that have taken place since the company announced in January it would transfer the work of one of its operations to Mexico as part of an alliance with an automotive leather supplier there.

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Union representatives had feared they would learn at the meeting that GST planned to shut down its finishing operations, but Bob Hinkle, assistant director of the mid-Atlantic region for the union, said GST officials said they had not made a decision.

Plans are to meet again in about a month, he said.

Temporarily relieved that GST did not announce the finishing department's closure, Hinkle said he told company officials he is concerned about the migration of skilled workers seeking other jobs due to the uncertainty of their positions at GST. Some workers - he said he did not know how many - already have left, and he expects more will do so before the retanning operation shuts down this summer.

He said workers speculate that the finishing operation will close soon after the retanning operation, and he has gotten no indication to the contrary from GST officials.

"A lot of skilled people have already left, so, obviously, people aren't going to want to wait until the end," Hinkle said.

GST President Dennis Hiller was unavailable for comment. John O'Malley, director of human resources, declined to comment on the meeting.

GST officials told union representatives in January that the retanning operation would close by the end of July. They said the move was part of a long-term alliance the company reached with Cueros Industrializados del Bajio, S.A. de C.V., a Leon, Mexico-based automotive leather supplier.

The announcement, which included 36 layoffs at the retanning plant, came about a year after the company laid off 158 workers at its cutting plant near Williamsport and shut down production there in order to move the work to plants in Mexico.

An estimated 388 members of the combined Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union work at GST's retanning and finishing operations at 15717 Clear Spring Road outside Williamsport.

Hinkle said GST officials told union representatives Tuesday that a plant being constructed in Mexico is about 80 percent complete and the Williamsport retanning operation is on track to close in June or July.

Hinkle said layoffs there, affecting about 190 workers, could begin in mid-May.

GST officials said an additional 50 workers at the finishing operation will be laid off as a result of the diminished activity at the retanning plant, Hinkle said.

"All that could change depending on what happens in Mexico," he said.

With those layoffs and the fate of the finishing plant uncertain, Hinkle said he is concerned about whether GST workers, particularly older workers, will be able to retrain for and find other jobs after several decades working on GST-specific machinery.

"Some of those people have only operated those types of machines all their life, so they're going to have to get retrained," he said.

Patrick Baker, state administrator for dislocation services with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, said in a telephone interview Monday his office has been in talks with GST since its last round of layoffs and is assessing its resources in order to help transition laid-off GST workers into new jobs. Also assisting in that process are representatives from the Western Maryland Consortium, which helps workers laid off in plant closures or large-scale layoffs to find new jobs.

Baker said once he is officially notified about the layoffs, a requirement for companies laying off at least a third of their work force within a 60-day period, he will seek to arrange a meeting at GST to provide workers with services - including job-seeking skills, training and education - to help them find new work.

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