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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