Workers push boycott of Acton company


By Jim Simon

Special to The Globe


OAKLAND. Calif. -- On a crisp Saturday afternoon three weeks before Christmas. Carmen Anderson should have been doing some shopping of her own. Instead she and a half-dozen other seamstresses were picketing the Berkeley outlet of Sierra Designs Co.. exhorting shoppers to buy elsewhere in an effort to pressure the company to reverse plans to close Its manufacturing plant In Oakland  this February.


“Thirteen years I’ve worked here and they’re offering me less than $500 [in severance pay].  That’s not enough for my house payment.” Anderson, 53, said. Pointing to her fellow workers waving signs in Chinese and Spanish. she said. “Nobody thought the ladles would raise a fuss but they treated us like we were nothing.”


Shutdowns of American garment assembly factories are not unusual. What makes the situation at Sierra Design different is that workers, backed by a coalition of labor and other groups, are trying to mount a boycott of the outdoor equipment company which Is owned by the CML Group of Acton, Mass. Worker representatives also plan to make their case at CML’s annual meeting to day at the State Street Bank.


 CML, run by former Harvard Business School teacher Charles M. Leighton, also owns Boston Whaler boat manufacturers,  Ericson Yachts, Carroll Reed ski shops, the Country Store of Concord and a handful of other recreational product companies.


About 75 employees will lose their jobs when the plant shuts its doors. Workers say most of those  affected are middle-aged Asian and Hispanic women who now earn about $5 per hour making high-quality down clothing, tents, backpacks and other outdoor gear.


Sierra Design officials say the company’s sales have suffered badly because its products are priced far above the competition. The company says it plans to do what most of Its competitors have done, subcontract work out to lower-cost plants In Texas, Washington and Asia.


 Leighton said in a telephone  interview that the company will focus more effort on Its retail stores in the hope of building up demand  for products to a level where the company may be able to reopen its own manufacturing facility some time in the future.


Sierra Design does not release separate financial figures, but Leighton said the division has lost more than $500,000. He added   that investors have pumped more than $4 million into the division and have not seen a single dividend yet. Overall, CML Group posted profits of $3.1 million on sales of $180.2 million during its fiscal 1984,  which ended July 31.


After management announced in October Its plan to close the plant, employees formed an independent union In an attempt to force the company to reconsider. But the company has not recognized the union since National Labor Relations Board rules do not allow certification elections when a plant is scheduled to be shut down.


Workers are also attempting to negotiate a better severance agreement with Sierra Designs. The company offered one week’s severance pay for every five years worked, terms that union lawyer Jim Eggleston descrlbes as “theft.”


Sierra Design president Alan Botsford and Leighton said the combination óf severance pay, 90 days notice of the shutdown, help in finding a new job and a continuation of medical benefits after the closing reflect the company’s desire to help its workers.


Leighton said relatively few workers are picketing the plant.  He said 80 percent of the pickets are people associated with the Plant Closures Project, an Oakland-based organization that is also organizing the boycott.


Jan Gilbrecht, a spokesman for the Plant Closure Project, said endorsements for the boycott are being sought” from environmental groups ‘such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. “Sierra Design and other CML companies are very image conscious,” said Gilbrecht.  “Their customers are affluent professionals who are supposedly concerned with social issues like the environment. We think we can reach these people.”


Gilbrecht said the group also is planning to picket stores that sell Sierra Design products in Boston  and Seattle.


Betty Chisolm, president of the Sierra Design Workers Union isn’t optimistic about saving her job. But, she said, “We can still hold our heads high. At least we can say they didn’t kick us out the door.”

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