Hartmarx ‘Victory’ No Longer Sweet for Rock Island Workers

Kari Lydersen

Seaford Clothing workers celebrate the Hartmarx "victory" before learning weeks later their factory would indeed close.

In June, the 350 workers at the Seaford Clothing Company plant in Rock Island, Ill., celebrated along with several thousand other people nationwide employed by the upscale men’s suitmaker Hartmarx Corporation, which provided President Obama’s inaugural duds.

Hartmarx filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, and for months it looked like a new buyer would close the company’s plants, which employ about 3,000 people nationally. But after a hard-fought campaign targeting major creditor Wells Fargo, including a threat by the company’s Des Plaines, Ill., workers to occupy the plant, a buyer was found who would keep the factories open.

At least workers thought so.

As the sale was being finalized, Rock Island employees had been working reduced hours, and rarely working at all on Fridays. So they were confused to be asked to come in on Friday, August 7. Then they were all called to the cafeteria and told that, effective immediately, they no longer had jobs. No severance pay, no accrued vacation pay, no nothing.

Karen Kinney, president of Workers United union local 617 and an employee for 32 years, was shocked.

We felt quite foolish,” she said, noting that after the June victory, It was such a big deal. We were celebrating, on all the news channels. And then with no notice they just said get your stuff and leave, you don’t have jobs here anymore.” 

As it turned out, Hartmarx had debts it had not disclosed to buyer Emerisque Brands, a British equity firm, and partner SKNL North America BV of India. Considering these debts, Emerisque cut the Rock Island factory (and an Alabama pants factory owned by Hartmarx) from the deal. The future of the Michigan City, Ind., plant may also be in doubt. 

This comes amidst a wave of job losses in the Quad Cities (of which Rock Island is one). John Deere and Alcoa have had major lay-offs; and Quad City Die Casting (employing about 100) is scheduled to close this month, unless the UE union can convince major creditor Wells Fargo to extend credit long enough to attract a buyer. Congressman Phil Hare (D‑Ill.), who actually worked at the Seaford plant in the past, said he was heartsick” about the closing, and blamed Hartmarx’s mismanagement. 

Kinney said the union is considering a class-action lawsuit, but otherwise workers are at a loss of what to do.

You think something like that could never happen,” she said. You give your life and hard work to a company and all you expect is a paycheck to support your family. We’re not asking for handouts, all we want are jobs. That was a good, clean, honest job you could feel proud of. Now some people don’t know where their next bag of groceries is coming from.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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