NEW YORK — The ILGWU launched a full-scale strike against The Leslie Fay Cos. Wednesday morning.
Susan Cowell, a vice president of the union, said about 2,000 Leslie Fay workers in five states, with the largest contingent at several facilities in the Wilkes-Barre area of eastern Pennsylvania, have gone on strike and are conducting “spirited picketing,” with no violence reported. The strike comes after two months of stormy contract negotiations in which Leslie Fay’s proposal to shut down its U.S. production was the main issue. Domestic production, the company says, accounts for 28 percent of its business.The old contract with the union expired at midnight Tuesday, and no further meetings are scheduled.
In addition to the sites in Pennsylvania, picket lines are out at a Leslie Fay distribution center in Secaucus, N.J.; a warehouse in Morrow, Ga.; a contract cutting room in Hialeah, Fla., and at the executive offices and sample room at 1400 Broadway here. A contractor used by Leslie Fay, North American Knitting in Mansfield, Ohio, was also struck.
“We’re prepared for a long strike, but we would like it to be over as soon as possible,” Cowell said. “We certainly didn’t want to strike, but we simply couldn’t let them get away with the things they wanted to do.”
Cowell said except for a report of one worker crossing the picket line, there is “full worker support for the strike action.” She also said the ILGWU was getting support in its action from Teamster drivers, and said that to her knowledge, “no scabs have been hired.”
Leslie Fay officials said that all its facilities were open Wednesday and will continue to operate for the duration of the strike with supervisors, replacement personnel and any workers who wish to continue to work. But a Leslie Fay spokesman added it is a slow period for actual production, and the main plant in Wilkes-Barre was not attempting to produce goods Wednesday in view of the strike.
“Our key concern right now is getting trucks in and out of the distribution center because it is a fairly busy time for shipping early fall goods,” he said. “We are shipping goods today and expect to continue to have that ability. If we have to, we will just close the production plant, which is what we said we want to do anyway.”
Cowell, though, said the strike should have an immediate impact on Leslie Fay’s ability to produce and ship merchandise.
The company said it has taken appropriate security measures to allow employees who wish to cross the picket line to do so. A spokesman claimed that at the Morrow facility, about 20 percent of a few hundred workers had crossed the picket lines, and in Secaucus, “a substantial number” had reported for work. In the Wilkes-Barre area, he acknowledged that “only a handful” of union workers were on the job.
Both sides say there are underlying reasons for their differences. Michael Babcock, president and chief operating officer of Leslie Fay, said the real motive for the strike is that the union is more interested in “justifying its existence and collecting millions of dollars in liquidated damages.” These are fees unionized firms pay to the ILGWU each year for garments it imports above an agreed-upon level.
Cowell said management is “attempting to bust the union,” as well as to draw attention away from the 47-year-old firm’s financial problems. The company has been operating in Chapter 11 since April 1993, forced into the bankruptcy courts when an accounting scandal rocked the company. After restating its figures, the company said reported profits were actually losses for 1992 and 1993.
Babcock said he believed that if workers were allowed to vote by secret ballot, “they would have voted in favor of our final contract offer.”
Cowell countered this by saying, “We have polled our members throughout the negotiations and have received full support and the authority to strike.” She also noted that local community leaders and politicians have expressed their support of the workers as well.
As reported, the final offer by the company for a new three-year contract included an extension of full-employment levels until May 1995, continuing 150 of about 1,200 sewing plant jobs at a new quick-turn facility in the Wyoming Valley region of Pennsylvania for the remaining two years, and severance packages for employees who elected to participate in a voluntary retirement program.
While Leslie Fay said it viewed the offer as a compromise to its original contract offer in March of closing down U.S. production altogether, the union rejected the offer, saying the 150 guaranteed jobs was not enough, and that it had problems with some contingency clauses proposed by the company as well.
The union said a strike fund is providing workers with $75 a week plus $5 a week for transportation. Health insurance benefits will remain intact, the union said, with union dues waived.