Brooklyn, Ohio, Hugo Boss plant to stay open, 3-year contract ratified

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Brooklyn, Ohio, Hugo Boss plant to stay open, 3-year contract ratified

Plain Dealer – BROOKLYN, Ohio — Just four days before the Hugo Boss men's suit factory in Brooklyn was scheduled to close, workers and the company reached a three-year contract today that they said will make the plant more competitive while saving jobs.

About 375 people work at the plant on Tiedeman Road, 300 of them union members. About 80 part-time union positions will be eliminated as part of the deal, said Dallas Sells, state director of the Workers United union. All the union workers are eligible to take buyouts. How many will take them won't be known for weeks, the union said.

And the workers who remain will see smaller paychecks. The new contract cuts the average wage to $10 an hour from $13. Workers will be able to earn more by doing piecework, the union said. Pension and other benefits remain intact.

"These are still decent jobs where people can pay taxes and support their families," said Bruce Raynor, national president of Workers United. "This was our goal."

In an e-mail, officials of Germany-based Hugo Boss said it had not yet determined how many jobs would be eliminated.

This morning, workers were celebrating a victory that many thought impossible: prevailing against a multinational corporation that wanted to replace them with cheaper overseas labor.

About 10:30 a.m., after voting 142-32 to ratify a contract reached hours earlier, many workers bolted from the plant, some raising their arms in triumph or doing victory dances in the parking lot.

"We did it!" cried Wanda Navarro, a member of the negotiating team who has worked at the plant for 10 years.

Hugo Boss officials also said they were pleased with the agreement.

"We are delighted that — together with the trade union and our employees — we have managed to find a way of keeping our Cleveland location open while we attempt to attack the competitive imbalance at this facility," Chief Operating Officer Andreas Stockert said in a written statement.

But the employees won't be returning to work anytime soon. Though the plant's doors were still open, the facility was set to be mothballed on Tuesday. Barely a bolt of material was left in the place.

The union said that it will be six to eight weeks before the plant becomes fully operational again, and that workers will be paid during the down time. In its e-mail, the company said no timeline had been set for reopening. The new contract guarantees a five-day workweek, the union said, much better than the three-day weeks many had been working.

The agreement came after months of contentious labor relations.

In December, after the union refused to accept a pay cut of nearly $5 an hour, the company abruptly ended contract negotiations and said it would close the Brooklyn plant, shifting work to Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. Hugo Boss said the plant, while profitable, was no longer globally competitive.

That set the union to work trying to save the plant. In a series of demonstrations, it portrayed the company as greedy. The union enlisted the support of "Lethal Weapon" actor and labor activist Danny Glover, politicians including Sen. Sherrod Brown, and major pension funds that have invested millions of dollars in Permira, the London private equity fund that owns Hugo Boss.

Then, late last month, the National Labor Relations Board said an investigation found probable cause that Hugo Boss had not bargained in good faith. The NLRB could have taken action against the company had the two sides not worked out their differences. Bargaining resumed in early April for the first time in four months.

The late-morning jubilation at the plant contrasted sharply with what had transpired hours earlier at the bargaining table at the Sheraton Cleveland Airport Hotel.

At 1 a.m. today, seven hours into a negotiating session, talks were getting heated. The union was asking for $10 an hour. The company wasn't budging from its $9 offer. Hanging thick in the air was the imminent shuttering of the factory. By 2 a.m., the company accepted the union's position on wages.

"We gained a dollar between 1 and 2 o'clock, and we took the chance that they would walk away from the table," said Raynor, the Workers United national president.

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