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Stormy Weather for London Fog


London Fog, for seven decades a proud Maryland name in outerwear known throughout the U.S., appears ready to wield the shears and cut its connections with the state where it began.

In less than a year, the nation's largest raincoat manufacturer has eliminated nearly 400 Maryland jobs, closing shops in Baltimore and Boonsboro and moving the longtime Eldersburg headquarters to Connecticut. Threatened with imminent closure are remaining plants in Baltimore, Hancock and Williamsport, with some 700 employees.

The decision rests on a dispute with the clothing workers union over imports and production costs, and the implied threat of moving production overseas to lower-wage contractors. London Fog is to decide this month on where to manufacture its fall raincoat line.

The labor union is skeptical of making concessions to the debt-laden, privately owned company, given the steady decline of U.S. garment industry and the Maryland job losses. It is even unwilling to present the company's proposal to employees for a direct vote, hoping instead for further progress in the fitful negotiations.

Maryland congressmen arranged a meeting between the heads of the company and union two weeks ago, without apparent movement. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has talked to both sides, but he now sees the prospect of agreement as remote.

London Fog says it costs $20 more to make a coat in Maryland than in foreign factories. It wants to expand the product line made in Maryland, including cheaper models now fabricated abroad, to improve productivity and lower unit costs.

Clothing workers officials see the manufacturer's proposals as a swift way to cut its contract liabilities and then shut down the Maryland plants in a year or so anyway.

Underlying the conflict are changing factors in the rainwear business: a sharp decline in unit sales, a shift in sales from department stores to outlets and mail-order catalogs, and a shrinking importance of top-brand London Fog raincoats in the company's overall garment sales.

The union wants a three-year employment guarantee; the garment maker offers a commitment until the contract ends in October 1995. Neither side seems confident that the Maryland plants have a long-term future in the shifting global-market needle trade. Unless that perception changes -- and unless union and company leaders become more flexible in their thinking -- a shutdown of these factories and the loss of a major Maryland trademark, and jobs, could be inevitable.

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