Textile workers' union sews on a new hat as owner of factory


Ethel Beaudoin, a stitcher for 30 years at John Roberts Clothing Co. in Biddeford, Maine, liked her work so much that in June she bought the company.

Not by herself, of course. Beaudoin, also president of Local 667A, Amalgamated Clothing Textile Workers Union, is a founder of a new workers' corporation that saved the bankrupt company and the jobs of its 170 garment workers, 90 percent of them women.

The takeover plans leave management in place, but union members such as Beaudoin are co-owners and members of the board under an employee stock ownership plan that takes effect at the end of the year.

"I enjoy my job, and I like feeling I'm part of the production of a quality product, something someone wears to get married in or to look for a job in," said Beaudoin, 52, a machine operator who sews pockets on men's suits from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week at the plant, 20 miles south of Portland, Maine.

Workers make men's suits and sport coats and women's blazers on a piecework basis, averaging $7.50 an hour.

"We had to take a risk," said Beaudoin, who appeared before the Finance Authority of Maine in Augusta with co-worker Susan Veit to ask for loan guarantees for the takeover. "Jobs in Maine are so scarce that if the union hadn't come up with this plan we'd all be collecting unemployment."

She is pleased that so many women are owners. "It's important for women to own things," said Beaudoin, who is divorced and brought up her daughter while employed at John Roberts. "Women are smart. Women are go-getters, and they don't give up easily. Anyone who raises children knows how to hang in there and be patient. That's what it took for this to work."

Beaudoin had to analyze the company's books, "figures we had never seen before except during contract negotiating times," she said. "The women voted overwhelmingly for voluntary payroll deductions to pay for lawyers and an inventory of assets. They agreed to forgo being paid for vacations and holidays for at least one year to keep down costs."

In the first employee takeover in Maine, employees and management will invest "sweat equity," $500,000 in deferred wages and benefits. The National Cooperative Bank Development Corp. of Washington, D.C., will lend $550,000; the ICA Revolving Loan Fund of Boston will lend $50,000; Shared Ownership & Management Inc. is putting up $150,000 in equity investment; and the Finance Authority will guarantee $450,000 in loans.

On the new board will be Susan Veit and Marie Graffam, sewing machine operators; Michael J. Cavanaugh, international representative of the New England Joint Board of the union, who suggested and knit the buyout plan piece by piece; John Barmack and Herb Stern of Shared Ownership & Management; plant supervisor Peter Della Cioppa; and former owner John Picariello.

Hopeful that the new union plan will work, Cavanaugh says it will be an "uphill" operation. "We're very proud we were able to pull this thing off," Cavanaugh said. "The group of women here are tough. They wouldn't give up on this thing. It won't be a bed of roses for them, but despite the fact they are not highly educated nor trained -- though skilled in their craft -- they're committed and now owners of a business."

Beaudoin and her fellow workers will be partial owners of the equipment, inventory and accounts receivable. They will lease back the 96,000-square-foot building in Biddeford Industrial Park from the Casco Northern Bank, which was owed $1 million by the family-owned manufacturing firm.

John Roberts does $4.3 million in sales. In 1987, before it went into bankruptcy, it had sales of $8 million. The plan is for Casco Northern to foreclose on John Roberts, which will go out of business. It will be replaced by ACT II Inc., which will operate John Roberts Ltd. The former owner of the company, John Picariello, will remain as president.

"We opened retail stores in 1987 at the time that the country was sending manufacturing overseas and business conditions were declining," said Picariello, who started the plant in 1961 with his father and brother. "I saw that the bank was unhappy with the financing, and so I listened to anything that was an alternative to shutting down. I see a willingness among the workers to do what is necessary to keep it going, and I feel very happy. I regret I no longer have stock ownership other than as an employee, but it's the best solution to the problem that can be found."

He says the company, on the brink of closing in December, has new customers and plans to add workers in the fall.

Picariello, who has two daughters, says the new buyout demonstrates "women power" in action. "The female workers are going to be much more self-confident, and we're going to see more and more women in supervisory positions," he said.

Union local president and employee-owner Beaudoin, however, looks at the new setup this way:

"We're all equal now," she said.

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