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Mobtown Beat

Stitch in Time?

Worker Shortage Threatens City's Last Tailored-Clothes Maker

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 6/13/2001

The low-slung brick building at 3023 E. Madison St. is home to a once ubiquitous but now rare sight in Baltimore: garment making. Here, beneath banks of fluorescent lights, 106 skilled union workers hunch over cloth-cutting tables, sewing machines, and clothes presses. A mechanized clatter fills the air as they operate the devices required to convert raw rolls of fabric into tailored clothes.

Maryland Clothing Co., an 80-year-old, family-owned manufacturer that turns out 500 suit jackets a day, is one of the last vestiges of a formerly mighty manufacturing base. A century ago, the "needle trades," as sewing-based trades were collectively known, represented the city's largest industry, but the lure of cheaper labor long ago sent most such business overseas. Stranger, though, than Maryland Clothing's unlikely survival into the 21st century is that Baltimore's last tailored-clothing maker is actually experiencing growing pains. Unemployment is rampant on the hardscrabble streets near the East Baltimore factory, but this company is dangerously low on help.

"I really need 25 to 30 more people and I can't find them," Maryland Clothing's president Gus Piccinini says. "I'd hate to have to turn work away, because it might not be so quick to come back."

Maryland Clothing's business is booming thanks mostly to its decision 10 years ago to specialize in the manufacture of military uniforms for Uncle Sam, which federal law stipulates can't be made overseas. This past April, the firm landed a four-year, $31 million Department of Defense contract to produce 480,000 Air Force dress coats, but "it's going to be very hard to make that goal with our current work force," Piccinini says. "And recently [the Pentagon] told me they would like an additional 60,000 coats [a year]."

To fulfill the federal contract, Piccinini needs sewers, press operators, and others with needle-trade experience. The average wage is about $10 an hour, with variations for productivity--slower workers earn less, he says; faster workers earn more. Unlike most jobs in the fast-growing service sector, these come with full benefits including health insurance, pension plans, and paid vacation and holidays. Still, filling 30 positions such as these is a lot harder than hanging a help wanted sign on the door. As the clothing industry withered locally, so too did the pool of skilled needle tradespeople. Piccinini says he's hired inexperienced workers in the past, but they require anywhere from six weeks to three months of on-the-job training before they begin to become productive--a luxury his current workload won't allow.

"If I could get at least 20 skilled workers, I could maybe begin to bring in some trainees," he says.

But even that prospect looks dim. Piccinini has placed ads in local papers, contacted the state employment office, and even issued an urgent press release about his labor shortage to local TV stations--all to no avail. His best hope now, ironically, is to capitalize on his industry's continuing woes.

Maryland Clothing's workers are members of the local branch of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), and Piccinini hopes to attract UNITE members and other workers from a couple of local tailored-clothing companies that have decided to close shop. Haas Tailoring Co. will cease production here this month, releasing about 95 union workers, and early last year nearly 300 needle-trade workers were let go when menswear maker Jos. A. Bank Clothiers shuttered its local plants. Joan Davis, co-manager of UNITE's Baltimore branch, is betting some of these workers will go to Maryland Clothing, especially since the company's four-year federal contract provides a degree of job security. But many of these laid-off workers have already retired or are holding out for severance packages. Others are toying with going into a new trade entirely.

"At one time we had something like 20,000 union members. Now we have between 300 and 350 in the area. And it's an aging work force," Davis says. "One reason [Maryland Clothing] is having a hard time getting workers is because people are leaving the sewing industry. They feel it's dying."

Some UNITE members are tapping a federal entitlement for needle-trade workers displaced by overseas competition. Called Trade Adjustment Assistance, the program offers job-training funds to those willing to leave the sewing machine behind. "They are getting educated in computers and things of that sort," Davis says.

And in its effort to lure new jobs to the area, the city is stressing high-tech "new economy" jobs over "old economy" manufacturing, further reinforcing the message that needle trades are a thing of the past. That blue-collar manufacturing outfits are often blindsided by the rush to embrace technology-based businesses is something Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, has seen before. But while pledging to help Maryland Clothing with its employee search, she admits it could be a challenge.

"It's not an easy industry to find workers for," she says. "It's very hard, tedious work that takes a certain type of worker to do well."

If the needle-trade work has gone overseas, so too might Piccinini's search for workers. In the past, local Jewish organizations have helped him hire newly arrived Russian Jews with sewing experience, and the company has helped experienced Latino sewers to emigrate. Piccinini says he's willing to employ workers from anywhere; he fondly recalls an erstwhile city program that paid him to train work-release prisoners.

But if Piccinini is worried about Maryland Clothing's survival, he can take some comfort in its resilient past--the company his Italian-immigrant grandfather started on Fleet Street in 1921 has weathered its share of rocky times through the decades--and his own efforts to guarantee its future. Piccinini recently paid off steep debts the company accrued when he bought the business from his father in 1985, and his son Michael has signed on as manager, representing the fourth generation to run the business. "This 80-year-old institution is here to stay," the elder Piccinini proclaims.

Or so it would seem. But looking out at all the empty sewing machines as he speaks bears a grim reminder for Piccinini that times have changed, and that this family-run manufacturer's future no longer rests entirely within the family's control.

"We have the space and we have the equipment," he says. "But if I can't find workers, I might be opening a Pandora's box of problems."

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