Hartmarx Workers Threaten Occupation

Another factory occupation to protest a plant closure could be taking shape in the Chicago area. Workers at the Hartmarx men’s clothing manufacturer voted May 11 to sit in at their plant in Des Plaines, Ill., if Wells Fargo bank tries to liquidate the bankrupt company.

The workers, members of the Workers United union, are demanding that Wells Fargo agree to finance efforts to maintain production and 3,600 jobs, either with current management or a new owner. They argue that the bank, which received $25 billion in government funds as part of last year’s rescue of Wall Street, should be obligated to support workers whose taxes are being used to fund the bailout.

“We’ll stand up and take whatever action is necessary,” said Joe Costigan, a Workers United official. “We’re going to draw a line in the sand and fight back.”

The situation at Hartmarx parallels that of Republic Windows & Doors, a Chicago factory where workers’ six-day occupation in December forced Bank of America to pay $1.35 million to settle the company’s severance package obligations to workers–along with another $400,000 from JPMorgan Chase.

The Republic struggle became a rallying point for labor in the U.S. and internationally, as BoA’s initial refusal to pay up symbolized the double standards of George W. Bush’s bank bailout–Bank of America had gotten $25 billion in taxpayer money as well.

The Republic struggle was led by the independent United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a small union with 35,000 members.

By contrast, the Hartmarx workers have labor’s big guns on their side at the outset. Their union, Workers United, a breakaway group from the UNITE HERE union, is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more than 2 million workers.

SEIU and Workers United are expected to announce a national toll-free number for workers to call when their companies are facing similar situations. Since the big banks that are typically creditors of bankrupt companies have received government funds, they should be compelled to use that money to save jobs, union officials argue.

Illinois politicians are backing the workers, too. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias threatened to withdraw $8 billion in state funds from Wells Fargo. And Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), a former worker at the company’s plant in Rock Island, Ill., threatened to become Wells Fargo’s “worst nightmare” if the bank forces a liquidation of the plant.

The workers also have major political support from top Democrats in Washington, including New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a longtime Wall Street ally, and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

So far, though, Wells Fargo hasn’t blinked, demanding that Hartmarx repay $114 million, or be liquidated to raise money to cover the debt:

Despite extensive marketing, Hartmarx has no credible offers to be acquired, but the bank group continues to work with Hartmarx to find potential buyers. Financial institutions must lend prudently, consistent with safety and soundness principles. Advancing more funds with no reasonable likelihood of being repaid is not consistent with sound banking.

The 122-year-old company has been unionized since 1910. It’s Hart Schaffner & Marx and Hickey Freeman suits are iconic brand names, and the company made President Barack Obama’s tuxedo and topcoat for his inauguration.

For Hartmarx workers, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Overwhelmingly immigrants–from China, Poland, Mexico, Italy and many other countries–the workers average about $12 per hour. It’s not high pay, but given the recession, it would be extremely difficult for workers to find other jobs at such wages–if they could find a job at all.

“Everyone at the plant is worried about their future,” Ruby Simms, a 32-year veteran at the Des Plaines factory, said in a statement issued by the union. “It all hinges on Wells Fargo. They have to do the right thing and allow this company to be reorganized–so jobs can be saved.”

Lee Sustar writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.