Over 400 union members, skilled garment workers at Southwick Clothing in Haverhill, are worried about their futures after Brooks Brothers, the owner of the factory, notified workers that their last day of employment would be July 20th. Workers at Brooks Brothers’ two other factories in the United State received similar notifications.
The workers at Southwick are members Local 187 of the New England Joint Board UNITE HERE, a union representing manufacturing, distribution, hospitality and other workers in the six New England states and New York. Workers come from dozens of countries speaking as many languages all with a passion for their craft and preserving it in America. The union at Southwick dates back decades to the former Grieco Brothers company in Lawrence before it was purchased by Brooks Brothers in 2008. At the time of the company’s purchase Brooks Brothers was intent on offshoring the few hundred jobs in Lawrence. Instead, through eleventh hour negotiations, the Union was able to convince Brooks Brothers to keep the Southwick factory open in nearby Haverhill. Over the years since then, the Union has fought hard to keep jobs in Haverhill and expand the factory’s benefit to the community by negotiating strong contracts and partnering with the company and state agencies to improve the skills of the workforce and increase employment at the company. There is no doubt that through these efforts the greater community and manufacturing industry have benefited
Now, as Brooks Brothers prepares to turn its back on the people who have built its status as an American icon in the fashion industry, workers are feeling betrayed, left out, and unheard. After months of working through the pandemic adapting their skills to make desperately needed PPE, workers fear being treated as just another item on an inventory list waiting to be sold off in a rummage sale. The workers, in one of the hardest hit COVID 19 hot spots in the Commonwealth, dutifully reported to work, believing in the nobility of the cause and the value they could add through their trade to the pandemic response efforts. At the time, Brooks Brothers was proud to tout itself as the Made in the USA hero of the COVID 19 story. In the blink of an eye that somehow stopped mattering. Suddenly, to paraphrase Brooks Brothers CEO Claudio Del Vecchio, Made in USA doesn’t matter anymore.
Workers at Southwick have worked hard to support the company and through successive labor contracts have shown their flexibility in a diminished and precarious American clothing industry. They can’t be blamed for shifts in fashion trends and the company’s inability to adapt to new style. They can’t be blamed for the changing nature of retail and the company’s inability to adapt to the new ways that people purchase clothing. They can’t be blamed for tariffs and trade deals imposed by government bureaucrats that only hurt American workers. They certainly can’t be blamed for a global pandemic. They should be respected for their work and should be the top priority for the company, for elected officials, and for the community.
It should not be for granted that nothing can be done to avert this tragedy. Brooks Brothers should seek a buyer for Southwick willing to pick up where they have simply given up. Southwick’s workers are known for their quality, producing “natural shoulder” suit construction revered by many American menswear designers and clothiers. Southwick is known not just as the producer of Brooks Brothers tailored clothing but also for high profile labels and clothiers such as J Press, Billy Reid, Orvis, Andover Shop, and Freeman Sporting Club. Southwick has long manufactured dress uniforms for the US military and clothed Presidents. Talent, skill, and “needletrades know-how”, lives on in the Southwick factory. Workers at Southwick are as skilled as they come in the needletrades and could be put to work making almost anything. A company with the right intent and the proper vision could deliver a win-win for workers, the community, and the nearly extinct tradition of garment manufacturing in the United States. If Brooks Brothers feels so bad about closing its American factories it would focus its energy on finding a buyer willing to honor the workers – and the tradition – it is leaving behind.