Happy Endings at Sierra Designs
East Bay Express December 28 1984
Happy Endings at Sierra Designs
By Paul Rauber
Things you will never see: a 56-year-old Filippino mother of six modeling Gore-tex jackets in LL. Bean’s catalogue; a raft full of Chinese garment workers floating down the rapids of the American River; a yuppie management consulting firm closing down and moving to Mexico because wages there are only a fraction of what’s being paid in the Bay Area. There has, of course, been the spectacle of armies of lawyers in three-piece suits trooping off to Bhopal India, lured like sharks by the smell of blood and death. They, unfortunately, will probably be coming back.
The garment industry has often been the arena for bitter labor disputes, and in the East Bay the burgeoning new market for recreational and sports clothing has brought with it a very cutthroat approach to labor relations. The Snow Lion strike in 1977, for example, had the management playing off the racial tensions between the fifteen different ethnic groups represented in the plant. The company brought in 200 new workers before the certification election, which resulted in a fine from the National Labor Relations Board and a call for a new election. Before that could happen, Snow Lion fired all the union organizers, moved most of its sewing to Taiwan, and eventually went out of business.
Class V divided its white workers in Emeryville from the Chinese workers in a Chinatown sweatshop. making union organization impossible. Union organizers in Berkeley were fired, and Class V eventually folded too. The incredible pressures on the manufacturers by the virtual slave labor prices in the Far East encourage a movement towards similar conditions here: the difference is that the workers often won’t stand for it.
In late October, Oakland’s Sierra Designs Company told its 75 manufacturing workers they might just as well start looking for new jobs: the company was phasing out its in-house manufacture of high quality tents and sportswear. The first nine workers were laid off on November 9; the last are expected to be gone by February. Ninety percent of these workers are women, many of them in their forties and fifties. They come from China, Mexico, and the Philippines for the most part, and would have extreme difficulty in finding other jobs. “Basically for us we have a difficulty for English,” says Kora Adorable, a middle-aged final inspector from the Philippines, "and I include myself. Like Chinese, Mexicans —they can understand little English, so how can they find a job?” When I talked to her, Adorable was walking a picket line in front of Sierra Design’s Berkeley store; her little boy, dressed in a little Sierra Designs jacket, played with a dog nearby.
The plan was to export Kora Adorable’s job back to the Philippines. Other possible manufacturing locations include Mexico, Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and their domestic equivalents in the “right to work” (i.e., right to work free of pesky union activity) states of Texas and Utah. Kora Adorable gets $4.50 an hour for her work at Sierra Designs; the prevailing rate for the same job in the Philippines now stands at about $2.75 a day. One can see the corporate attractiveness of what the industry calls “outsourcing.”
Sierra Designs’ preppie president Alan Botsford insists that the decision to close down the manufacturing line “was not a question of prevailing wage rates.” The company was not planning to open up an equal plant somewhere else where wages are lower, he said; they just want to get out of the manufacturing business altogether. “We came to the conclusion in October that we couldn’t afford to continue to operate a manufacturing plant,” he told me. “We decided that the company would be better off if we concentrated on designing products and then sourced them and marketed them.”
The decision to close down the Sierra Designs plant in Oakland was made br the company’s managers, says Botsford, and not by their parent company, CML Group of Acton, Massachusetts. CML is sort of a yuppie conglomerate, manufacturing and marketing what it calls “ego-intensive” leisure products under thirteen different trade names—everything from yachts to build-it-yourself grandfather clocks. Local CML offspring in the Bay Area, aside from Sierra Designs, include the Nature Company and San Francisco’s lnGear, a dealer in adult toys.
Despite Kora Adorable’s $4.50 an hour,’CML hasn’t exactly been hurting. They netted $3.1 million in the last fiscal year, nearly a quarter of a million of which went directly into the pocket of CML’s eponymous founder and chief executive officer, Charles M. Leighton. Leighton is famous for his decentralized management approach, leaving the dirt level decisions to be made by subsidiary managers like Botsford. CML provides the
cash, and in return, said Botsford, “each division has a responsibility to make a contribution—a financial contribution—to the business...iIf you’re part of a division that’s doing extremely well, and you want more money to open new stores and you want your employees to benefit from the fact that they are doing so well, it’s not fair to those employees to be told that there are other divisions that ‘are dragging down their performance.”
The workers at Sierra Designs saw only themselves being d ragged down into unemployment. When word of the closing came down, they set about trying to form an independent union, the Sierra Designs Workers Union. Some eighty-five percent of the workers signed up for the new union, and elected Betty Chisolm their president. It was a last-ditch organizing attempt: the workers were desperate to have some organized body which could negotiate with management.
Management was taken aback. “This is not a case of management and employees with poor relationships,” said Botsford in a rather hurt manner. “We’re not a company who has had a long history of disputes between labor and management; we’ve always paid well, we try to treat people fairly, and we’re going to continue to do the same thing.”
They went about it in an odd way, though. Sierra Designs hired the famous San Francisco law firm of Littler, Mendelson, Fastiff and Tichy to represent the company before the NLRB. The move significantly upped the ante in the dispute; LMF&T are to labor relations what the Seventh Fleet is to international diplomacy. LMF&T has represented Coors Beer, Campbell Soup, and Gallo Wine in their anti-union campaigns; it has also worked closely with the Washington D.C.-based Right to Work Foundation.
Botsford maintains that he was not aware of LMF&T’s anti-union reputation when he enlisted them. On the other hand, LMF&T seemed well aware, of the potential future benefits that could come from successfully keeping unionization out of one arm of the growing CML Group, assigning Fastiff himself to do the ground work on the account. LMF&T frequently seems to advise employers not to talk with the workers: they have been found guilty by the NLRB in more than twenty cases of ‘‘refusing to bargain.’’ In this case, the advice backfired badly.
The fledgling Sierra Designs Workers Union went before the NLRB asking for a recognition election. The initial outlook was not good, as the NLRB will not usually conduct elections in plants that are closing down. But when Sierra Designs’ vice president and comptroller Steven Langmaid testified under oath to the NLRB on November 21 that Sierra Designs was not owned by the CML Group, the whole picture changed. The SDWU charged that Langmaid had perjured himself; there is no question that Sierra Designs is a wholly owned subsidiary of CML. The NLRB was sufficiently impressed to grant a new hearing on December 17.
Luckily for Sierra Designs, that December 17 meeting never took place. While the lawyers and the company were concentrating their attention on the union certification question, the Sierra Design workers and their supporters in the community were conducting an end run. With the help of the Oakland-based Plant Closures Project and other community groups, the workers organized a boycott and picket of Sierra Designs four Bay Area retail stores in Berkeley, San Francisco, Palo Alto, and San Jose. The Oakland City Council passed a resolution sponsored by Wilson Riles, Jr. directing city staff lo work with Sierra Designs’ management to do everything possible to avoid a closure of the 4th Street plant. (The council was not exactly enthusiastically in favor of the workers: while Alan Botsford was allowed to address the council at length, Mayor Lionel Wilson refused to allow SDWU President Betty Chisolm to speak.) When Botsford tried to hold a $60-a-person benefit for the San Francisco Pocket Opera ‘at the inGear store at Embarcadero Center on December 8, workers and supporters showed up outside to conduct an informational picket. All the while the boycott was growing and threatening to spread nationwide, and Sierra Designs’ public image was suffering. The Plant Closures Project, for example, pointed out that the company was using $200-an-hour lawyers against workers earning $4.50 an hour who hadn’t had a raise in three years. Sierra Designs management began to have second thoughts about not negotiating with their workers.
On December 11, CML was to have a shareholders meeting in Boston. Sierra Designs wouldn’t allow Betty Chisolm time off to attend the meeting, but Jan Gìlbrecht of the Plant Closures Project did fly out and was able to talk to Charles M. Leighton himself. At the same time, working. through the Inter-religious Economic Crisis Organizing Network and the Boston-based Labor Support Project, she was able to mobilize substantial media and community support for the Sierra Designs’ workers, and a large demonstration was promised for the shareholders meeting (25 percent of CML stock, by the way, is held by Readers Digest, your president’s favorite source of information on Soviet-inspired groups like the Nuclear Freeze movement). Leighton must have been anxious to avoid a scene, because a partial settlement was worked out before Tuesday morning. The demonstration was called off, and by Thursday the thirteenth a full settlement satisfactory to all parties had been reached.
The agreement revolved around three points. The company agreed to an improved severance package, adding annual bonuses on top of the three weeks severance pay for workers with fifteen years seniority. Secondly, the company will conduct a large sale in January, ten percent of the proceeds from which will go to the workers. They may take it in the form of improved severance pay, or may choose to invest it in a new worker-owned manufacturing plant, which will hopefully provide jobs for most of the laid-off workers. The company has promised to help in assessing the feasibility of such a project, and promised to contract with the new plant if their bids are within five percent of their competitors. “This is one of the main things we went in for in the first place,” SUWU President Chisoim told me. “We want to keep some of the jobs in the US"
And so all ends well. Sierra Designs is pleased: the boycott has been called off, as has the perjury hearing before the NLRB, and they are finally able to get out of the manufacturing business. The workers are happy, although they would have been happier if things simply remained as they are. “It’s better than not having a job,” laughs Chisolm; her co-workers smile wanly. The Plant Closures Project people are exuberant. “This is the first time we’ve been involved in a plant closure struggle that’s concretely resulted in jobs being saved locally,” beams co-coordinator Gilbrecht. She credits community pressure, the boycott, and above all the determination of the Sierra Designs workers with the successful resolution to the shutdown. “These workers are totally involved in this process, and were seriously committed to saving their jobs,” she says. “They’re just exceptional folks.”
The new company, of course, faces the difficulties now of finding a worksite as well as start-up capital. But like the end of some sappy ‘40s holiday movie, the problems seem to be solving themselves in time for the closing credits. The National Co-op Assistance Fund in Washington says that the project satisfies all of their criteria for providing funds, and the worker-owned company may find a free worksite in Berkeley’s abandoned Colgate plant, itself the site of a bitter plant closure in 1981. Colgate finally seems to be ready to deliver the mammoth plant to the Nature Conservancy as an enormous tax write-off. The founders and former owners of Sierra Designs have agreed to manage the new company, and the only part of the puzzle missing now is firming up the contracts with Sierra Designs.
The only loser in this little holiday drama is Littler Mendelson Fastiff and Tichy. With good will and good faith on all sides, a mutually satisfactory compromise was reached, and while everyone else is feasting on Christmas pudding, the San Francisco lawyers are left to their cold misers’ gruel.