The Free Agent was perusing this Obama fan site when she happened upon a list of recent triumphs under the heading “Spike in Mass Struggles”. Skeptical, but open-minded as always, she probed deeper into the story of a Hugo Boss clothing factory in Brooklyn, Ohio, which was supposedly rescued from closure by members of the Workers United union. New boss, same as the old boss, as the saying goes, the story is one of rescue by threats and bribery.
In 1989, the deliciously stylish brand Hugo Boss bought a clothing factory in suburban Cleveland. Over the years, it found the union shop to be uncompetitive with its other manufacturing facilities in Europe and Turkey and announced in Spring of 2009 that it would not renegotiate with the union when the existing contract expired in April 2010, instead, would close the plant, which then employed about 375 people.
Enter the unholy alliance of politics and celebrity. Ohio governor Ted Strickland sent a letter in February of this year offering “assistance” to keep the plant in the state, but was met with a bewildering silence. But he wasn’t alone in seeing the opportunity to make political hay. Hugo Boss is owned by private equity firm Permira, which is partly owned by several state employee retirement plans. The Free Agent seems to remember from her business school days that a pension manager’s fiduciary responsibility is to the retirees, but New York City comptroller John Liu joined several other states’ pension managers to pressure Permira to overrule Hugo Boss’s business decision. “New York’s pension funds do not wish to be investing in job loss or in a global ‘race to the bottom,” Mister Liu said.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, actor Danny Glover lobbied celebrities attending the March 7 Academy Awards to not wear Hugo Boss suits, and to display “Keep the Hugo Boss Plant Open” lapel pins.
The Free Agent has noticed that unholy alliances can triumph in the short run, and the company settled with employees, reducing their wages from $13 to $10 an hour (it had offered $8.30 in the 2009 negotiations), and eliminating eighty part-time positions in hopes of ensuring forty hour work-weeks to the rest. When it was announced that the plant would stay open, the head count had further dropped to 170, but this did not deter Governor Strickland from fabricating a “375 jobs saved” press release.
The Free Agent gazes through her lorgnettes of history and sees what no one involved in this episode can—that we may not like it, but labor must compete with labor. Everyone understands capital must compete with capital, products must compete in the marketplace, every living species competes with its neighbors for survival. The garment workers were good at their jobs, but as the company said all along, they were not willing to accept a competitive wage. One long time employee seems on the brink of understanding this when she says, “There are no jobs that are going to pay us decent money like we’re making now.”
Finally, not content just to cling to jobs of the past, citizens of Brooklyn are fighting against jobs of the future. A planned expansion of Wal-Mart is being challenged on the grounds that it interferes with the city’s 2006 “Master Plan” which calls for reinvigorating the rapidly oxidizing local economy by “retaining and enhancing our ‘small town’ character”. (Ironically, Wal-Mart clerking jobs pay about the same $8.30 prevailing wage Hugo Boss offered before it decided to close the plant.) The Free Agent suspects there are about two hundred former garment workers who will not be joining that protest.