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Plant closing 'like a slow death'

GST AutoLeather operations cease

GST AutoLeather operations cease

October 09, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT

For the very last time, Roger "Rocky" Stone woke up Thursday morning and drove to the tannery.

The thought made for a restless night's sleep, and had been the cause for many restless nights since January, but the finality of it hit home as he made the drive into Williamsport, down Clear Spring Road, and into the main parking lot at GST AutoLeather.

Since the final layoffs began in June, Stone increasingly had become surrounded by ghosts.

On his final day, he arrived to find the plant's massive parking lot, which once supported several hundred cars and trucks, sprinkled with less than a dozen.

As he walked through the 400,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, he passed large sections of empty space, devoid of the sounds, scents and sights of workers and equipment that combined to form the lifeblood of the plant since it opened as W.D. Byron & Sons Inc. in 1897.

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From as many as 476 full-time workers in January, less than a dozen remain.

The plant's last run of production was about three weeks ago.

Just a skeleton crew remains as the plant prepares to close its doors, and two others in Mexico speed up to full capacity.

For the past several weeks, Stone said he has been haunted by nearly tangible images of the men and women who once worked alongside him for just less than three decades, each image floating beside the machines they operated for years.

"I see (their) faces. When I stand in an empty room, (I) see faces of 150 people who worked on the floor," Stone said Thursday afternoon outside the plant where he worked for the last 28 years. "It was like a slow death. It was like the blood running out of your veins."

Stone expressed much of the same sentiment on this fateful Thursday afternoon as he had in an interview just a week earlier, on Sept. 29, but as he prepared to drive away from the plant for the last time, his words carried less conviction, less passion.

Elected president of the plant's UNITE-HERE Local 658T union in October 2004, a position he had held on and off since he came to the plant in 1977, Stone has sought for the past year to remain firm for his fellow workers, fight to save the plant from closure and battle his own fears and uncertainty about life after GST.

Stone stepped down from the position and was laid off Thursday, along with about six other workers, and he said four more were to be laid off Friday. While there was little he could do in recent months as union president but to console his fellow workers and commiserate with them, he said he felt some relief from the title's burden. Some, he said, but not much.

"The pressure's off, but I still worry about it. I worry about the ones that's left here, and I worry about the ones who have left already," he said as one of the plant's laid-off workers shouted "Rocky" from his passing car window.

'It is a family'



Rumors and speculation about the plant's demise circulated for years, and fueled competition with foreign companies. Work force reductions had decreased the number of workers in Williamsport from 1,270 in January 2000 to just 600 at the beginning of this year.

Much of that speculation came to an end in January, nearly a year after the company shut down two plants in Pennsylvania and a third cutting plant on Governor Lane Boulevard near the Clear Spring Road plant in Williamsport. In a meeting with union representatives, company officials said they would discontinue the plant's retanning operation by the end of July, leaving only the finishing department intact.

In the same week, the company announced it had signed a letter of intent to enter a long-term alliance with a Mexican company for retanning and other services, and over the past year, workers with the plant's finishing department wondered whether their jobs would be next.

Then, in June, the company announced it would be laying off all of the plant's workers except for a small complement of about 30, effectively shutting down the entire Williamsport plant and bringing a halt to more than a century of continuous production.

"I'll tell you, in all the years that I've belonged to the union, I've been through a few things and it's rough, and nothing, ever, affected me the way this did," Stone said. "You've got so many friends. You grew up with them, basically. If you've been with somebody for 25 years or more, they know more about you than your whole family knows about you because they've spent more time with you, probably, than your own wife did, and it's like family. It is a family, and when your family leaves home, you get sad."

Emotional blows



Ted Stevens, who served as the shop steward since March 1985, said he had no illusions about whether the plant would close and that it only was a matter of when. He was laid off on Sept. 23.

"Every day you went in there, you didn't feel like going on. You were just disgusted," said Stevens, 59, who this week took a test to determine whether he will qualify to enroll in a CDL course to become a truck driver.

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