Union Tools closes Frankfort, N.Y., plant

Local 1916 leaders pose at the Union Tools plant. L. to r. are Richard Bernier, president; Don Miles, recording secretary; and Larry Russell, treasurer.

Seventy-five Local 1916 members lose jobs

A 100-YEAR-OLD lawn and garden tool-making operation in Frankfort, N.Y., shut its doors permanently December 1, throwing 75 Boilermakers from Local 1916 out of work. Union Tools had produced shovels, hoes, and forks, under brand names like Razor-Back and UnionPro. In April 2006, Ames True Temper purchased Union Tools. It subsequently shut down the Frankfort plant and folded the operation into its more modern U.S. manufacturing facilities.

The tool-making plant had long been a key employer in Frankfort, a community of about 7,500 located in central upstate New York. Just six years ago, its union work force numbered more than 300. But competition ―both domestic and global ―took a toll on Union Tools’ finances, and jobs dwindled.

Plant had older work force

Local 1916 PRESIDENT Richard Bernier, 55, said Union Tools had an older work force. “Most of the people have worked there since the 1970s. I started when I was 19. This is going to be tough for me, because I’ve had one job my whole life.”

IR Rocco DeRollo, who helped Bernier and a local lodge committee negotiate an exit agreement, said, “Many of these workers were second and third generation. The plant closing was devastating.”

According to Bernier, workers at Union Tools averaged about $29 an hour in wages and benefits. Members worked in three production areas: handle milling, forging, and assembly/shipping. “At one time, we made the only hand-rolled forks in the United States,” Bernier noted. “We hand-rolled each tine on the fork.” He said an Austrian firm began using laser machines to cut forks more rapidly and efficiently, putting competitive pressure on Union Tools. Meanwhile, the union work force received pressure from another source —cheap labor. Bernier said the company began contracting out tool production to China. “How do you compete with 85 cents an hour?” Bernier asked.

Workers saw closure coming

FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES HAD plagued the Frankfort operations for some time, Bernier said. By early 2006, workers were anticipating trouble. Union Tools advised the local that it intended to outsource some shovel blade production to China and move sawmill operations to its Kentucky facility. “We’d been negotiating since January on and off. We knew all along they were stalling until they could sell [the plant to True Temper].”

When True Temper completed its purchase of Union Tools, it soon became clear that the Frankfort plant would be shut down. “They told us they didn’t need us because they had so many tool-making facilities,” Bernier recalled.

“The operation was redundant for True Temper,” said DeRollo. “We did bargain over the decision to close the plant. The committee made an offer to accept a 20 percent wage reduction and a reduction in vacations, which amounted to more than half-a-million dollars a year. However, True Temper said they would need to come up with another $3 million or so. There was virtually no dispute that the company could save what it claimed —and no way to counter it. Our members essentially would have had to work for free.”

Once it became clear that no amount of concessions could save the plant, DeRollo and the committee entered into bargaining over a severance package. Under the agreement, workers with the most time in service will receive $4,000 each. Those with less time will receive lesser amounts —down to $100 for one year of service. All workers will receive 16 weeks of paid health insurance, two years of paid life insurance, and prorated vacation.

“I think they got what they could get,” said DeRollo. “It’s a respectable package. Unfortunately, when you’re bargaining over a severance package, you don’t have much leverage.”

Workers will also receive help under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which offers extended unemployment insurance payments and training benefits. In some situations, TAA also provides income subsidies for those who get new jobs in similar occupations making less money.

Local 1916 was chartered as a manufacturing lodge in July 1957. It was disbanded effective January 31, 2007.