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GST to end production

July 13, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

WILLIAMSPORT

daniels@herald-mail.com

GST AutoLeather will end production at its plant near Williamsport by the end of September, retaining only a small fraction of its workforce, officials involved with the closure said Tuesday.

Bob Hinkle, assistant director of the mid-Atlantic region for UNITE HERE, the union representing the employees, said the development ends months of speculation among the plant's 400 manufacturing workers. GST shut down its cutting plant last year and announced in January the retanning operation would close by the end of this month.

Aside from about 50 administrative jobs, about half of the 400 workers are involved with the plant's retanning department. The remainder work in the finishing department.

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In four staggered notifications to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation from June 3 to June 29, GST Human Resources Director Bill Walker said the layoffs involve workers in all remaining sectors of the tannery, including plant operations, engineering and maintenance, manufacturing quality assurance, finance and human resources. Accompanying data indicates while some administrative workers will be affected, the majority of the jobs are involved with production and manufacturing.

Patrick Baker, state administrator for dislocated services with the DLLR, said based upon his conversations with GST officials, the layoffs amount to a plant closure. GST officials told him the action is a mass layoff, rather than plant closure, because a skeleton crew of about 30 workers will remain to perform a variety of unspecified functions.

"My understanding is that there will be some presence, however, it doesn't appear that it's going to be any of the manufacturing processes," Baker said. "They're still calling it a mass layoff because there will be a presence at the (plant)."

Hinkle said GST officials notified him and UNITE HERE Local 658T President Roger Stone two or three weeks ago about both the layoffs and the company's plans to entirely shut down the plant in late September or early October.

He said the officials pledged to begin the process by offering severance packages to workers who voluntarily resign, followed by forced layoffs after two months. He said while the news was disappointing, it also removes the uncertainty of many workers about the ultimate fate of their jobs.

On June 9, GST and union officials agreed on a severance package under which workers will receive $175 for every year they worked at the plant, as well as health insurance for the remainder of the month in which they are laid off and the next month.

The elimination of production jobs at the Williamsport plant is closely tied to a long-term agreement GST entered into with Mexican company Cueros Industrializados del Bajio, S.A. de C.V., to move the work to two plants there.

Baker said in addition to other state and federal assistance, the workers are eligible for aid under the federal Department of Labor's Trade Adjustment Assistance Program because the work is being moved to plants in Mexico.

Peter Thomas, executive director of the Western Maryland Consortium, said consortium, DLLR and GST officials have been in discussions since the cutting plant closed last year and they are prepared to help workers find new jobs.

Thomas said he and other labor officials are scheduled to hold orientation sessions at the plant, with permission from GST officials, on Thursday to advise workers of the services and assistance available to them.

Dennis Hiller, president of GST AutoLeather, was unavailable for comment. His administrative assistant said Hiller is in Mexico this week on business. Neither Walker nor Stone returned calls for comment.

Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II said he considers GST's plans to halt production at the plant a loss not only to the workers but also to the town and the state of manufacturing in the United States.

"You've had generation after generation of people that walked to that tannery, helped build the tannery and helped make GST what it is today," McCleaf said. "It is upsetting, another tradition lost."

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