As of December 2009, German suit manufacturer Hugo Boss announced its intention to close its Cleveland-based plant. While the company is famous for high-fashion men’s garments, the Brooklyn factory in particular only produces two lines of suits. This was one of the reasons cited by Hugo Boss for publicizing the plant’s imminent closure, set to take place in late April 2010. According to the company’s official statement, the Ohio location “is not globally competitive” enough (abc NEWS). Shutting down the factory would cost upwards of 300 jobs.
Following the statement by Hugo Boss, the company entered into negotiations with Workers United, a labor union representing the 300 plus employees of the Cleveland location. But what exactly are labor unions, and what do they do for the workers they represent?
Labor unions began making themselves known during the time of the American Industrial Revolution and are divided into two different types. Those classified as trade unions appropriately represent employees in a certain trade, while industrial unions support groups in certain industries. In either case, labor unions offer mediation between the large corporations and the little guys – the workers (UnionSmart.org).
Trade and industrial unions often use collective bargaining, in which workers will group together in order to negotiate with their employer for higher wages, better working conditions, or other benefits in the work environment. The union’s role is to better the work experience for the employees, yet keep the corporation in business. Oftentimes if the workers’ demands are not met, the union will organize a labor strike in the hopes that it will drive the company to concede, although the threat of a strike can be just as beneficial (UnionSmart.org).
In the case of Hugo Boss, a strike would not have been favorable, seeing as the manufacturer intended to close the Cleveland plant anyway. However, Workers United and Hugo Boss were able to come to an agreement in the days immediately preceding the scheduled closing of the factory to keep it up and running, saving the hundreds of jobs that would have been lost. Additionally, wages will not be cut, and the Ohio-based Hugo Boss will be able to become more globally competitive by reducing other costs and increasing flexibility of manufacturing. The deal was also driven by actor Danny Glover, who urged others in Hollywood not to wear the company’s suits to this year’s Oscars. His support of the workers helped to draw attention to the situation taking place (Manufacturing.net).
While labor unions help to obtain better working conditions and higher wages for the workers they represent, they may also be viewed in a negative light. Some corporations like Wal-Mart have been known to actively oppose unionized labor, and it has become harder for them to operate since the time of the Industrial Revolution.
By Alyssa Parnaby