Menswear workers fighting for jobs

May 7, 2009 3:25:47 PM PDT
Workers at a northwest suburban factory are fighting to keep their jobs. The Hartmarx factory in Des Plaines could be closed if the company is liquidated.Employees of Hartmarx held a rally outside their northwest suburban factory in hopes that their jobs will be saved.

Hartmarx has been making clothing for more than 100 years and has even made apparel for President Obama.

The company is now known as the tailor to the president of the United States.

It was a shock to employees when principle creditor Wells Fargo talked about closing the business.

State treasurer and friend to the president, Alexi Giannoulias, has stepped in sending a letter warning the bank not to shutter Hartmarx. But instead find a more suitable solution that lets workers keep their jobs.

Hartmarx workers hope this won't be the end for the storied clothier.

"I work in this company for 41 years, so, my whole life, I was 20 years old, and my whole life is here," Linda Chin said.

The 122-year-old company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January, could go under if chief creditor Wells Fargo Bank moves ahead with a plan to liquidate the business rather than restructure it, angering some since Wells Fargo received $25 billion in federal bailout money and has requested another $15 billion to say viable.

"We're proud to make the best suits in the country," said Joe Costigan, Workers United/S.E.I.U.

Workers rallied on Thursday morning to save their jobs at the Chicago based manufacturer. Hartmarx remains the largest menswear maker and possibly the only men's topcoat manufacturer in the North America. The men's suits and coats they make under the label of Hart Schaffner and Marx are worn by President Barack Obama.

Obama suitmaker and 46-year employee Wally Kuzmyn is glad a friend of his most famous customer has offered to help. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has threatened to drop Wells Fargo Bank as the money custodian for treasurer's offices if they don't back off efforts to close the plant.

"As far as the actual deposits, but they are custodian for 8-billion dollar portfolio," said Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois state treasurer.

Wells Fargo Bank declined to comment citing confidentiality, but did issue a statement that reads in part, "We work with our commercial customers who experience finanicial difficulties wherever circumstances prudently permit it. We want them to stay in business so we can earn all of their business and help them succeed financially."

Some of the at least 600 workers at the Des Plaines factory are hoping for a second chance.

"Where is the American dream. My American dream just went out the window. Matter of fact, the American dream for my children is out the window," said Ruby Sims, Hartmarx employee.

Calls for comment from Wells Fargo were not immediately returned.

Obama suitmaker struggles to survive

Hartmarx, a label worn by President Obama, is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Hartmarx reports consumer demand is down and credit is tight.

Beneath the lapel at Grant Park, it's a Hartmarx. At the inauguration, the president's coat and topcoat - both Hartmarx. And another custom suit accompanied the president to the inaugural balls.

Now Hartmarx workers hope that the president will hear their pleas for help.

"Everyone needs their job. And we wish the President Obama, is going to give us more work and we make a great jacket for him. I don't know what we're going to do next," said Chin.

"It's hard now to find another job. It's really hard," said Lorena Vences, Hartmarx employee for 11 years.

For decades the facility has turned out high-end menswear.

The process starts with yards of fabrics stretched out for patterning. The patterns are cut and seamstresses assembled to pieces to create the suit. Making the suits takes many skilled hands and eyes.

In January, the company filed for bankruptcy.

The union representing the workers urges the bidders to invest in the future of Hartmarx.

"We believe that the banks and the decision-makers, if they look at the long haul, they will move towards the bids that will keep these companies going for another 120 years," said Costigan.

"The economy is down now, but in a given situation i actually believe that things are going to change and we should have a chance to prove that this company can survive," said Ruby Sims, Hartmarx employee for 31 years.


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