Friday, 7 May 2010

Still the Boss ?

Employees of designer clothes company Hugo Boss won an unexpected victory when the firm reversed an earlier decision to close it`s plant in Brooklyn, Ohio last month.

The company had planned to close the US plant and move produuction overseas, where labour is cheaper. The change of heart, hailed as "almost unprecedented" by trade union leader Bruce Raynor, came about due to global pressure of different kinds.

One man who can give himself a pat on the back is actor Danny Glover, who organised a boycott of Boss` products by Oscar nominees attending an Academy Awards ceremony and also visited the plant in person to address the workers. Ordinarily I have little interest in celebrities, but  Glover, although I know next to  nothing about his film career, does seem an interesting character. The son of two postal workers who were both NAACP activists, he has embraced various causes throughout his life and is currently chair of  Trans-Africa Forum, a Du Bois-style Pan-African organisation.

The involvement of a progressive-minded celebrity might not mean much in another industry, but in the image-sensitive world of high fashion, it is a very big deal indeed, particularly given Mr Glover`s  hands-on approach.

While it`s very tempting to say that this is a case of  "one man can make a difference", that`s very rarely true, and many played a part in the campaign to save the worker`s jobs.

 A major factor in the reversal of the closure decision was the fact that state pension funds in various parts of the US made protests. The reason their words had weight was that they all had substantial holdings in Permira, a UK company which has the controlling interest in Hugo Boss.

Another factor was that German trade union IG Metall sits on the board of Boss, and that Spanish trade unions picketed a tennis tournament  sponsored by the company. Turkish trade unions also sent letters of support to the worker`s campaign.

Many others played their part - local politicians, religious leaders,  the workers themselves and Cleveland Jobs With Justice, who I seem to recall we encountered in an earlier article on this blog.

The unions did have to take a pay cut to keep the plant alive, but overall, it`s still  an excellent result.

Over here in the UK, things don`t always seem so encouraging.

 A major multi-national that employs a friend of mine has just decided to close the plant where he works (I`m deliberately `anonymising` the details as things are a bit sensitive there at present), throwing 1200 people out of work. Part of the reason is that some of the work previously carried out on site has been contracted out to companies in other parts of the world. Although it is not a unionised workplace, some employees had joined the relevant union as private individuals. There have been consistent complaints from them for many years to my knowledge that their union ignores them, and I gather no help has been offered in this situation, despite a number of requests.

The behaviour of some European multi-nationals sparked angry responses from UK oil refinery and power station workers not so long ago, particular issues being safety matters and selective hiring processes that appear to put UK workers at a disadvantage. In the East Midlands at least, that still flares up periodically, though no longer making national headlines. The unusual thing about this series of disputes is that it appears spontaneous and not instituted by trade unions or any political grouping. The left has been divided over whether to support the workers, and those that do admit to having been taken by surprise. The far right has stayed away. While their grievances seem well-founded, the workers themselves show little knowledge of current affairs and/or trade union law, so one can assume they`ve not been briefed on the issues. Certainly, the trade unions have become involved in supporting them, but by the same token, some support has been forthcoming from Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, who has a number of constituents among the workforce.

Saving the worst till last, we now come to the shameful story of Corus.

Steel company Corus  was fined £1.3 million pounds and ordered to pay £1.7 million pounds in costs in December 2006 after an explosion in the company`s Port Talbot furnace killed three workers. The Judge in the case, Justice Lloyd-Jones, was critical of the company`s "casual" attitude to safety.

You might think that this would be enough of a warning shot  to make the company change it`s ways, but this is clearly not the case as a quick visit to will show you.

Safety magazine Hazards lobbied the leaders of the three major UK political parties over Corus` abyssmal safety record during the run up to the UK general election this year. In particular, they highlighted the fact that the company had been convicted of 8 safety breaches, including three fatal incidents, during the period August 2007 - April 2010. If anything, the firm is now offending more frequently, as during March 2010 and April 2010, Corus UK Ltd and a subsidiary, Corus Special Profiles, were convicted of four separate safety breaches, including one of the fatal incidents mentioned above, and were ordered to pay a total of £355,000 in fines as a result.

One thing that strikes me about this is that in 2006, the firm is fined £1.3 million, but after continuing to offend on a regular basis, and with a clear pattern of escalation in recent times, the highest single fine imposed in the cases highlighted by Hazards is £250,000, a mere fraction of the earlier fine and very little indeed to a company with an annual turnover measured in billions.

One factor contributing to Corus` appalling record is the fact that the company is deeply unstable at the highest level, with four senior managers having resigned in as many months. Whatever the circumstances, it is clear that effective enforcement is needed to bring about change and so far I don`t think we`re seeing this.

At time of writing, Corus are under investigation yet again following the death of an employee in Scunthorpe.

It`s clear that politicians, trade unionists and others (including the Courts) are going to find that dealing with multi-nationals throws up issues that are not at all eassy to solve. The Hugo Boss situation shows that under the right circumstances, intelligence, imagination and, above all, determination can prevail in the end.


For the Hugo Boss situation I have drawn on a number of articles by Rick Nagin* for People`s World. For the other matters my sources were many and varied, including This is Scunthorpe, Scunthorpe Telegraph and Hazards Magazine.

* Rick Nagin sounds an interesting character. A member of the Newspaper Guild and the Communications Workers of America, he has been active in journalism and grassroots politics for many years. At one time Executive Assistant to Cleveland, Ohio`s first Hispanic Councilman, he himself received an impressive 49 % of the vote when running for Cleveland City Council in 2009. He is now involved with the AFL-CIO trade union federation and Jobs With Justice.

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