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Hickey Freeman: Sowing Security?
Hickey Freeman:  Sowing Security?

Senator Schumer rallies the troops.

"'Made in the USA’ is becoming a lot more attractive to consumers.  I don’t want to compare Hickey to Harley-Davidson, but they’re both brands that are made in the USA, and people like them.”  -Jamie Salter, Authentic Brands Group

"I intend for the factories to operate in their current locations for at least another century."  -Doug Williams, W-Diamond Corporation

Thursday, January 24, 2013  Rochester, NY - These statements were made late last month by the new owners of Rochester's own Hickey Freeman.  Salter's company will own the brand; Williams' will be in charge of operations.  What first struck the mind of this typical local news consumer in a city that routinely touts its manufacturing strength and strong dedication to economic revival, is that the local press so underreported the story behind these comments. During this tense period when the future of the 114-year old company and its workforce of over 500 was in the balance due to the bankruptcy of its distant owning companies, I was far better informed about the trials and tribulations of the Buffalo Bills. 

Rochester just squeaked by a mass layoff, so let us now consider the optimism of the new owners.  Can their words help restore a sense of job security to the workers and their families of this historic company?  Can the workers have faith in the new owners, or do wider economic conditions beyond Rochester have the stronger hand in how things shape up locally?

There is certainly much evidence of hope.  For, what must have been reassuring for the workers was the support they received, and have received in years past from their political and union representatives.  I recall Congresswoman Slaughter, Senator Schumer and Workers United officials energetically rallying on the factory steps last fall, and I read Mayor Richards' statement of support: "The City and I will work with Senator Chuck Schumer, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and the management of Hickey Freeman to lend whatever assistance we can to help keep this proud company thriving in Rochester."  These officials closely assessed potential bidders for signs of commitment to keeping operations here.  And, with her eye on the global picture, Slaughter pledged legislation to open overseas markets to the Rochester-made men's suits whose quality is world renown. 

The New Version of Job Security
Can Hickey Freeman workers, then, expect to enjoy job security as Mr. Williams put it, "for at least another century”?  Can average consumers in our area, like me, continue to have the chance to own one of the most expensive men's suits in the country at discount prices during warehouse sales or from the factory outlet?  While we should grant Mr. Williams his license for exaggeration under the recent hope-filled conditions, there is certainly no such certainty these conditions will endure.  For, while Hickey Freeman is among our area's rare breed of long-established, nationally recognized goods manufacturers, it is also humming along in the context of the so-called "new economy," and worker insecurity is the new normal in this system.  Real optimism for the garment workers depends on more than just keeping the factory open here; every new success in the battle over ownership and bankruptcy is a symptom of the problem, not a victory for security.  Instead, attention must be given to the ways by which ownership is shuffled and profits accrue by maneuvering finances instead of making products.

Let us first consider the plus side.  Hickey Freeman is a fine example of Rochester's continuing manufacturing sector.  Workers are actually creating material products that one can hold in hand, and they are doing so in a real factory building the Company constructed in 1912 on North Clinton Avenue (to house the 1700 workers it employed at that time, a majority of whom lived within walking distance).  It offers immigrants and ethnic minorities from seventeen countries, such as Bosnia, Laos and Vietnam, several of whom cannot speak English, a chance for a respectable living standard and a stepping stone for their children's advancement.  And the production workers are unionized.  "Union Made in the U.S.A." is the label still sewn into each new suit. 

There is much in this scenario that resembles work in the "old economy" during what researchers call the "age of shared prosperity" from about 1945 to 1975:  unionized, good-paying manufacturing jobs with benefits, and the hope-filled future these features offer the workers and their children; in short, a good shot at the American dream.

But, of course, the tremendous economic transformations outside the factory since the mid-1970s have unsettled that secure way of life.  Hickey Freeman workers face these wider economic pressures and the resulting job stress now familiar in most workplaces, manufacturing or otherwise.  Outsourcing or offshoring are now constant threats in the garment industry.  While their earnings have not fallen prey to the wage-cutting or wage-freezing seen elsewhere, and while their union is not under attack, Hickey Freeman workers must pay a greater share of their healthcare. 

Even when its workforce was 1,700 some 100 years ago, workers must have believed that Mr. Hickey or Mr. Freeman were somewhere in their building with them; they might have even caught glimpses of them.  Today, how many know who their employer is?  What do 500 workers in Rochester, NY mean to some distant executives whose profits are based more on owning, selling or suing over a disparate portfolio of intellectual property?  In 2009, 45 years after it took over Hickey Freeman, Hartmarx went bankrupt.  It was bought out by the Indian textile company, S. Kumars Nationwide and Britain's Emerisque Brands, which then set up the HMX Company in Manhattan.  Business observers targeted overseas companies as the source of HMX's bankruptcy because they failed to provide sufficient investment.  Hickey Freeman's case shows that the fate of a locally run, foreign-owned business is tied less to that firm's success in turning out fine products and more to the financial deals and decisions of its remote corporate parents.  Indeed, no faults have been found with Hickey Freeman workers, and the Company appears to be doing well; the Democrat and Chronicle reports that its spring 2013 orders are up by twenty-nine percent.

What is more, the notion of job security is changing due to a new reality of work that began in the 1970s for a large majority of American families in response to the changing economy:  the necessity of the dual-earning couple.  We need to be clear that the jobholder today is the family, not just the individual.  This means that a family cannot survive on the work of just one spouse if the other is laid off.  It also means there is insecurity in the still-employed spouse, too, since he or she might need to quit in the event of relocation.  For reasons like these, only about one in ten professional dual-earning couples stated in a 2007 study that they both feel fully confident their jobs were safe.  Imagine, then, the stress of manufacturing workers as they confront super-complicated recurring ownership swaps and bankruptcy trials.   

When Labor Security Turned Deadly
Job security is more the exception than the rule nowadays.  It will take continued support by political and union leaders with their eyes on the changing nature of capitalism to make Salter and Williams' welcomed pledges a reality.  Our community can reaffirm its commitment to our remaining local garment workers by knowing our local history. 

One-hundred years ago on January 23, 1913, 200 of the city's garment workers went on strike for the 8-hour day, a 10% pay raise, union recognition and extra pay for overtime and holiday work.  Daily parades were held in the St. Paul Street garment district.  Six strikers were wounded by police over the course of the strike.  But the biggest tragedy occurred on February 5th when an 18-year-old Russian immigrant garment worker named Ida Breiman was shot and killed by a sweatshop owner as she was among a crowd of strikers who were "calling out" workers at his Clifford Street shop to join in the strike.  As a result of Breiman's murder, no less than 10,000 Rochester clothing workers joined the strike.  In various free events over the next few months the Education Committee of the Rochester Labor Council will celebrate the strike's centennial and honor Ida Breiman. Look for the Ida Breiman story in a future article.

-Vincent Serravallo is Associate Professor of Sociology at RIT, and studies work and community, and the consequences of work on familial relations. He helped narrate Struggle in Smugtown, a Rochester labor history documentary.

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