Oakland plant shutdown spurs protest.

The Montclarion - November 27 ,1984
By Mary O Connell

A coalition of labor leaders and workers announced Saturday they will lead a national boycott against Sierra Designs  to  pressure the camping equipment firm to reverse plans to close its Oakland manufacturing plant.

The shutdown, scheduled for February, will eliminate  about 100 jobs at the company, a manufacturer of high-quality down jackets, tents and other outdoor gear.

“We want to hurt their sales to send a message to Sierra and its management that they are not being very good citizens,” said Susan Schacker, of the Oakland-based Plant Closures Project, which is helping to organize the boÿcott.

About 50 persons distributed leaflets and picketed Saturday outside  the company’s  retail stores  in Berkeley and San Francisco, carrying signs which read, “We sew. We weep.”

The slogan of a recent  Sierra Designs advertising campaign was, “We sew.  You reap.”

Boycott spokesperson , Pat Gilbrecht [sic]said only a  “handful” of people crossed the picket lines. “We plan to be back every Saturday,” she said.

After talking to picketers, one shopper, Roger Moy of San Francisco, said he wouldn’t  cross the line, even though he made a special trip to Berkeley to shop at Sierra.

I don’t even like  unions,” ‘he said. “But it looks as if people could lose their jobs here.”

John Stacey, Sierra  Designs vice president for marketing and sales, said the decision to shut down  the plant was made last month as a cost-cutting measure. He said the firm  plans to subcontract out sewing work in the Far East and Texas where labor costs  are cheaper.

“We understand their  (the workers’) frustration, but competition for  the shrinking backpacking market is increasing,” he  said, “We can’t sell a jacket for $80 when our competitors can sell a similar jacket made overseas for $50.”

Workers complain Sierra has offered them only three  weeks’ ‘severance’ pay, even though many have worked for the firm, for as long as 15 years.

The firm's work force  is made up mostly of middle-aged Chinese, Mexican and black women.

"Many of us have worked together for years,” said Betty J. Chisolm, president of the newly-formed Sierra Designs Workers Union. “We are like family.”

After learning of the shutdown, workers organized the union last month, but so far the firm has refused to meet with union representatives, Chisolm said. She said Sierra also has hired the “union-busting” law firm of Littler, Mendelson, Fastiff & Tichy.

The firm has represented Coors Beer and the Campbell Soup Company in bitter negotiations with labor. “I think it’s clear they (Sierra) don’t want to talk to us,” Chisolm said.

Stacey said company managers have met individually with workers defended the company’s decision to hire the law firm  as “protecting our right to good representation.”

“Until there is an election, we don’t have to recognize the union,” he said. “But we will talk with workers.”

Eric Hoffer, a machinist who helped organize the Sierra workers, said an election is doubtful because of a long-standing policy of the National’ Labor Relations Board. that a lot

The board refuses to allow union elections as the date of a scheduled plant  shutdown draws nearer, he said. “But union or not, we want to meet and talk,” Hoffer said. “These are jobs we’re talking about.”

Workers say they are paid an average of $4.50 an hour under a fixed rate, plus per-piece wage structure. They said their last raise was three years ago.

But Stacey said, even with recent changes in the pay structure to save costs, some seamstresses earn an average of $20,000 a year when the work volume is heavy.

"We are bit competitive or profitable with cost like that," he said.

He said several other camping equipment makers either have gone out of business or have been forced to close plants and shift to "offshore" subcontracting to stay afloat.

"The backpacking market has changed," he said. "The simple fact is that a lot of people who went backpacking in the '70s are now raising families."

Sierra was founded in 1965 by two Bay Area men — ‘both avid outdoorsmen — who were dissatisfied with the quality of camping, equipment then on the market,  Staceÿ said.

They sold the company in 1972 to CML Group, a Massachusetts-based holding company that markets leisure products under 13 trade names.

CML says, it acquires only elite companies specializing in “ego-intensive products.”

Stacey said high labor costs have made Sierra unprofitable for the parent company.

In addition to the San Francisco and Berkeley stores, Sierra has two other retail outlets in the Bay Area — one in San Jose and one in Palo Alto. Sierra products also are sold at other stores locally and nationwide.
 

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