Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Forty years ago, the garment manufacturing industry was Boston’s biggest employer, just as it was in New York.
Now, it is in danger of virtually disappearing — just as some people think it is in New York.
And just as New York has made an effort to turn things around via such enterprises as the Garment Industry Development Corp. and the establishment of a Fashion Center Business Improvement District, Boston is also seeking not merely survival, but revival.
Plagued by cheaper non-union shops at home and low-wage competition overseas, members of the Boston garment industry are set to put into action an ambitious plan that includes the participation of management and labor.
As reported, owners of 11 union shops late last month formed the Apparel Industries of New England, a nonprofit organization set up to strengthen and promote the city’s garment industry. The group plans to form an elected labor-management committee made up of industry representatives and union leaders.
As part of their ongoing campaign, Boston contractors and labor leaders say their strategy will include:
Adopting new operational methods.
Updating machinery.
Developing individual business plans for all union shops.
Expanding the customer base beyond local businesses.
Establishing out-of-town offices in cities such as New York to promote Boston contractors.
Applying for city, state and federal funding assistance.
Shimmy Cohen, an engineering and management consultant for New York’s GIDC, who conducted the initial study, will implement the plan.
“I see this whole situation as an opportunity — not an obituary,” said Cohen, adding that the business strategy should be applicable to other regions of the country where the garment industry is ailing.
In 1980, 4,000 employees worked in the greater Boston area’s 60 union shops, but that number has dropped substantially. Today there are about 1,750 employees working in 15 union shops in the area encompassing 100 cities and towns, according to Jerry Rubin, director for the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership, the nonprofit organization that funded the $10,000 project with the Council for American Fashion, a joint ILGWU-management group formed in 1991.
Founded last year, the Manufacturing Partnership provides low-cost, high-quality technical services for manufacturers, Rubin said. “We’re in desperate times and we knew we had to take drastic measures,” said Warren Pepicelli, manager for the Boston joint board of the ILGWU. “We know if we don’t change, ultimately the jobs in this area will be lost.”
Pepicelli said he has contacted the Massachusetts Jobs Council and five other city and state agencies, hoping to get politicians, retailers, academicians and other professionals involved.
“The garment industry is extremely fragmented,” he said. “One goal is to bring together labor, management and city officials with an organized strategy. We can’t be competitive by lowering wages because at some point you get down to minimum wage. And then you can forget the union label, because they can still do it cheaper overseas.”
Boston manufacturers produce a good deal of private-label merchandise for local stores such as Talbots, Brooks Brothers and Susan Bristol, but they need to expand beyond the local market, Pepicelli said.
“The garment industry used to be the largest employer in Boston in the late Fifties. We understand there’s part of that market we’ll never get back,” he said. “But we’re not lying down. We’re trying to be proactive.”
At the height of industry employment in the Fifties, about 8,000 people worked in Boston’s garment district, Pepicelli said.
Pleating, high-quality work, small production runs, a quick turnaround time and committed employees are some of the advantages of Boston’s union shops, according to organizers of the new contractors’ association.
“If a company needs small lots of 450 pieces, we’ll do it and it will come out walking,” said Pepicelli, referring to finished goods that are ready for retail once they leave the shop.
However, operational and distribution methods are outdated, Rubin said.
“Boston remains a little backward, primarily from a managerial position,” Cohen said. “Almost all the shops are inefficient in that only one operator does a multitude of operations.”
Some manufacturers said they are prepared to change.
Having worked in the Boston garment industry for 40 years, Murton Sudalter, owner of three union shops in South Boston — State Pleating Co., Victor Bias Binding Co. and Arlene’s Sportswear — said off-shore manufacturing impeded his business, as did inflation, and increases in non-union shops and union wages and benefits.
“Contractors and the union are working jointly to solve the problem,” Sudalter said. “The union has stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We will help you survive.’ In all of my years in this business, no one has said, ‘Let me help you.’ “
Union shop owners and labor leaders are optimistic about their survival now, even though that hadn’t been the case prior to the study, Sudalter said.
Despite the garment industry’s renewed hope, there are still many concerns. In 1985, non-union shops were rare; today they are widespread, especially southeast of Boston in the New Bedford and Fall River area, where shop owners pay 66 percent less than Boston shop owners, Sudalter said. “Traditionally, the Fall River/New Bedford area is known for garment shops,” he said. “They have a large pool of skilled labor, very low rents, large facilities and the cost of living is much lower than in Boston. We’re paying 28 percent of our payroll to the union for benefits.”
Sudalter said he is eager to examine new time-study methods and new machinery while seeking out new customers for his 35,000-square-foot facility.
It is time to get Boston “back on track,” said Herb Langer, owner of Cricket Sportswear in South Boston.
“We’ve all been in business for so long that we’ve become used to the old-fashioned ways,” he said. “We’ve overlooked some of the better things that are available.”
Not everyone was as optimistic. One contractor, who asked not to be named, said, “I’m involved in the project halfheartedly. I’ll give whatever support I can, but I’m not that big.”
Having worked in the industry for more than 25 years, he said his company turned to non-union shops four years ago and continues to do so.
“The union is asking for increases and non-union is asking for decreases. It’s an easy decision,” he said. “The union doesn’t have enough work to feed everyone any way.”
In addition to drafting an analysis of each of the 15 shops for his initial report, Cohen was asked to focus on technology and the potential to expand existing market base. In the months ahead, he will inspect each of the sites to provide a more in-depth strategy for each one.
Boston’s garment industry is “trailing behind” Pennsylvania, New York and other regions of the country, Cohen said. That’s especially so in the South, where most plants have better equipment, he added. Boston manufacturers receive the same fee for piece work they did four years ago, despite increases in union wages, overhead expenses and raw materials, he said.
Jay Fialkow, a Boston attorney who represents the Apparel Industries of New England, said the idea of hiring an industry executive to develop a plan was his. “The process will be ongoing. We know that one aspirin won’t make the problem better. We’re here to save the industry,” he pointed out.