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Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream plant to close

June 09, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS and DAVE McMILLION

HAGERSTOWN -- The Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream plant in Hagerstown plant will close at the end of 2011, laying off 460 workers in phases beginning in 2010, a plant official said Tuesday.

The Frederick Street plant will transfer production to other facilities owned by Unilever North American Ice Cream, the Good Humor-Breyers parent company, Supply Leader Ken Wells said.

Unilever decided to close the Hagerstown plant after "careful and extensive analysis" showed it could achieve "greater efficiencies" by transferring production to another plant, Wells said.

"The decision was not easily made, and in no way reflects the dedication and performance of our colleagues at the Hagerstown facility," he said.

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The plant's managers shut down production on Tuesday to inform employees of the decision in a series of meetings, Wells said. The plant was to remain closed today to give employees time to process the news before returning to work Thursday, he said.

Wells said there will be no changes in operations through the end of this year. The transfer of production to other sites will take place in phases beginning in 2010, he said.

Wells said Unilever had not determined which plant or plants would take over production from the Hagerstown facility.

Wells said the company would assist employees with job placement and other benefits, but the specifics of any severance benefits were still being negotiated with United Steelworkers, the union that represents hundreds of employees at the plant.

Wells said he would not discuss the collective-bargaining process with the media.

A letter obtained by The Herald-Mail explains the concession proposal that workers on Tuesday confirmed was used to explain the plan.

The letter suggested that each worker's wages be reduced by $7.30 an hour and each worker's benefits be reduced by $2.80 an hour for a total hourly cost reduction of $10.10. The wage and benefit reduction would save the company $8.8 million a year, according to the letter, which was signed by Wells.

The letter said utility, wage and benefit costs in Hagerstown are higher than those at other sites. The letter compares Hagerstown to Sikeston, Mo., where Unilever has a plant, and states that annual benefits costs at the Hagerstown plant are $19,220, compared to $13,394 in Sikeston.

"Please let me know on or before May 8, 2009, if the union is amenable to a wage and benefit concession of this magnitude so that we can move this decision bargaining process forward," Wells says in the letter.

Union representative Larry Lorshbaugh and a group of disgruntled workers gathered in the plant parking lot at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and criticized the company over its actions.

Lorshbaugh said there was never any bargaining or negotiation on the part of company officials, and said the concession was a "demand."

Lorshbaugh said the company wanted workers to take the cuts, then negotiate for a new contract. But that was not good for workers because they would be powerless to gain anything in wages after agreeing to the wage and benefit cuts.

Meanwhile, employees have been generous to the company, giving up family time to make sure the company prospered, Lorshbaugh said.

"And this is the way they give a 'thank you' back," Lorshbaugh said.

"We're like peasants (and) he's in there drinking out of gold cup," said plant worker Greg Cosens, looking toward the plant.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission's 2009 Business & Industry Directory lists the plant as the county's 15th-largest employer.

The directory lists the plant as having 521 employees -- 487 full time in the union and 34 who were nonunion or management.

Wells said the 460 layoffs represent all the plant's current employees, aside from some temporary labor.

Unilever started talking on Jan. 27 about the possibility of closing the Hagerstown plant and moving production elsewhere, Wells said in February. He said then that talks with the Steelworkers union were expected to continue over the next few weeks.

The plant on Frederick Street in Hagerstown was opened in 1983 by Gold Bond Ice Cream, which was purchased by Unilever in 1989. The plant's opening followed a zoning dispute with the site's neighbors, who didn't like a proposed parking lot entrance. The company was about to back out when city and county officials negotiated a compromise involving an access road, The Herald-Mail reported at the time.

The workers voted in 1995 to join the United Steelworkers union. At that time, the union said workers were seeking better benefits and a grievance procedure for resolving problems with plant management.

Contract negotiations have brought workers to the brink of a strike at times over the years.

When a contract expired in 1998, workers stayed on the job, but picketed and protested. A new contract was signed several months later.

In August 2004, workers turned down an initial contract offer, but approved a revised contract after the company added some conditions just before the deadline for a strike.

Those conditions included an extra personal day, a cap on health insurance increases and stronger terms about outsourcing jobs, Lorshbaugh said at the time.

Unilever said in May 2006 that it was spending $7 million on improvements to the plant.

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