A farewell to jobs Closing down: After 65 years at Locust Point, Procter & Gamble is moving plant's operations elsewhere in the country.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With less than a week left to operate, the Procter & Gamble Co.'s plant in Locust Point already looks deserted and forlorn, with little sign of activity at the dowdy red brick buildings on Nicholson Street.

The last bottles of Dawn, Ivory and Joy rolled off the assembly lines late last month, and the gray metal machines stand silent. The 70-some workers left have turned to the dirty job of shutting down the place.

They're taking apart the machines and ripping out robots, then sending many on to their new home in Kansas City, Mo. They're trying to wash away the chemical residue that comes with 65 years of production, in case anyone wants to buy 26 acres of waterfront property.

By Friday, the only thing left to do will be to padlock the gates and pay their respects to jobs most of them have held for half their lives. One by one, the skeleton crew will trickle out, vanishing in much the same way the 215 good-paying jobs P&G; maintained here at the time of their January 1994 closure announcement disappeared from Baltimore's economy. Bit by bit, one by one, job by job.

They all know each other, have shared in each other's lives over the years, have watched each other's kids grow up. Goodybe to Jim Angelo, who at 46 had 24 years at Procter & Gamble. Goodbye, Joe Brockmeyer, 44 and not quite sure what he's going to do next. Goodbye Bob Bush Jr., a third-generation employee who wanted to work to age 60, pick up his gold watch and go sit on a beach somewhere.

"It's like graduating from high school," said Frank Lenivy Jr., a second-generation worker who has transferred to a P&G; plant in Pennsylvania. "You know that most of these people you'll never see again."

At its height in 1979, 550 people were on the payroll, turning out the products that keep Americans -- and their clothes, houses and dishes -- clean. Camay. Tide. Cascade. Spic N' Span. Ivory Snow. Cheer. At one point, it accounted for 28 percent of Ivory soap production -- that's 115 million floating white bars, all from Locust Point.

Local families sent two, three generations of workers here, entering into the unspoken covenant of the post-World War II industrial boom: Work hard, and a job will always be there for you.

"I thought I had a job there for life," said Mike Fritz, who put in 25 years at Locust Point. "We were doing well for them. We made them big money. But with technological improvements and concentrate formulas, you can make twice as much as before with half the people."

The Locust Point plant survived the Depression, World War II, at least three fires and an eight-week strike in the early 1970s. It produced 30 separate product lines for the Cincinnati-based conglomerate and had been upgraded as recently as 1988 with a multimillion-dollar renovation.

L But it couldn't survive the business realities of the 1990s.

Procter & Gamble isn't the only Fortune 100 company locally to embrace the new technologies in which less truly becomes more. Within two years, Coca-Cola USA plans to open its new $60 million plant in Allentown, Pa., which doesn't bode well for the 73-year-old plant in Locust Point and its 125 jobs.

Between shutdowns and layoffs, Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of good-paying blue-collar jobs over the last two decades, none of which have been replaced. The reasons are familiar: Heightened competition, the emergence of a global economy, automation, computer software and changing distribution patterns.

"It's like putting a frog in a pan of water, then turning on the heat. The frog doesn't realize it's boiling to death, and it dies," said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends and author of "The End of Work," which describes the insidious correlation between technology and employment loss.

"Company by company this is happening, and because there's no national debate, the average person doesn't sense what's happening."

Tearful farewell

Plant manager Bonnie A. Curtis had to choke back tears as she stood before her workers on Jan. 13, 1994. She had already been through one painful shutdown at P&G;'s operation in Long Beach, Calif., before transferring to Baltimore in March 1993. She didn't want a repeat of that experience.

But since July 1993, when she first saw internal studies from the company's Cincinnati headquarters, Ms. Curtis knew this day was inevitable.

"I spent the whole summer angry with the company," said the 37-year-old manager. "I had finally gotten promoted, people trusted me here. That's what really hurt."

As much as the news hurt Ms. Curtis, it was even more painful for the 215 workers who had assembled in the former Cascade packing room. After all, management personnel presumably had signed on for a life of transfers and often painful decisions.

Ms. Curtis, for example, is going to be the plant manager at a $60 million shampoo and toothpaste factory in Guangzhou, China, with more than 1,000 employees. It was a move she had sought after vacationing there years ago.

But workers thought they had a literal pledge from the company, dating back to 1923, guaranteeing them full employment for life, in plants such as Locust Point and elsewhere.

But the union president, Keith Largent, knew something his colleagues in the Independent Oil and Chemical Workers union did not. He had confronted the chairman of the company on just this issue at P&G;'s October 1993 annual shareholder meeting. And he knew the company was prepared to break its long-standing promise to provide 48 weeks of work for every employee with two years of continuous service.

Most of the workers standing before Ms. Curtis had at least 20 years with the company, and the average age was 48 -- too young for retirement, too old to be looking for a new career. If they didn't transfer within the company, they were going to lose their seniority. They were definitely going to lose the sense of family they had built up over the years.

"I didn't know what I was going to do," Jim Angelo said. "But I knew I didn't want to punch a clock anymore. I'd had enough."

Joe Brockmeyer felt he was starting all over again. "But nowadays, I guess everyone has to accept that there might not be a company there for them to retire from," he said, a sentiment echoed by many of his similarly pragmatic co-workers.

The choices facing employees were stark: Retire early. Try to find a job in Baltimore's shrinking manufacturing sector. Or transfer within the company, which meant relocating your family to places like Kansas City or St. Louis -- but, strangely enough, not Hunt Valley, where P&G; operates a major cosmetics and fragrance division.

"Hunt Valley needs skills, not more people," Ms. Curtis said.

The 1,700 employees there were brought into the corporate fold in 1989, when P&G; acquired Noxell Corp. through a $1.3 billion stock swap. Since then, the company has consolidated Max Factor International's cosmetic lines to Hunt Valley as well, having purchased Revlon Inc.

Although the Locust Point employees had been told that relocating to Hunt Valley wasn't an option because of an abundance of existing manpower, eight secretaries, electricians and mechanics with special skills have transferred to northern Baltimore County, and more offers are on the table.

For someone like Stewart Godlewski, 41, relocating was a tough call. He loved his home state and had never dreamt of leaving. But with two young children, he had to find a job comparable to the $20-per-hour that P&G; paid.

To its credit, Procter & Gamble did several things to soften the blow. It brought in an outplacement firm to help employees with the rudiments of job-hunting. It reduced the retirement age from 55 to 50. It gave everyone $5,000 toward educational costs.

Financial advisers taught workers how to manage their money. Counselors from Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital helped them -- and their families -- cope with their feelings.

For those who wanted to transfer, perks ranged from all-expenses paid trips to their prospective cities to complete moving expenses. P&G; also paid for all closing costs and appraisals. In some cases, they even bought the workers' Maryland homes.

"That's the way they usually treat management," said Clyde Dovell, a 56-year-old machinist. "You never hear of guys from the floor being treated like that."

The company also paid for a 192-page yearbook, celebrating the current workers and the plant's history. Every time someone left, the company paid for an office party.

On top of all this, lucrative severance packages included at least a year's pay and health benefits, as well as shares of stock accumulated by workers over the years. Some workers walked away with stock valued at nearly $500,000.

For someone like Mr. Dovell, who always planned to retire early, P&G;'s generosity was a godsend. But others who ended up retiring were not so overjoyed: Retirement curtailed their potential payoff from the profit-sharing plan.

Still, everyone knew it could have been much worse.

"They could have handed us pink slips and told us we would be gone in six months, or they could have locked the gate when the contract expired," said John Wheatley, 42, a former union official at Locust Point whose wife, Helen McMahon, is a second-generation P&G; employee.

Cutbacks and prosperity

Procter & Gamble could afford its generosity. The shutdown in Baltimore was part of a large-scale cutback that would result in greater profits for the household goods conglomerate, and much more quickly than anyone had guessed.

It had set the consolidation plan in motion in late 1993, with a decision to close 30 of its 150 plants worldwide. At the same time, it decided to eliminate 13,000 jobs -- 12 percent of the work force. The company put aside $1.7 billion, almost a year's profit, to cover the costs.

It paid off. In the 1995 fiscal year, which ended June 30, P&G; reported record net income of $2.6 billion, a 19.6 percent increase from the year before. Sales were up just as dramatically, to a record $33.4 billion, a 10 percent gain.

Stock prices also rose 43 percent between June 1993 and June 1995, benefiting most of the very workers displaced by the consolidation. As a result of this robust performance, the company raised its annual dividends to $1.60 per share, the 40th straight annual jump.

After taxes, the company now saves $400 million annually as a result of the consolidation. Its original goal had been to save $500 million, but analysts now predict P&G; will surpass that easily.

"This company does its homework," said Carol F. Warner, a Salomon Bros. Inc. analyst. "They did the most serious restructuring of any company in household products, which gives them a real cushion and puts them in a better competitive position going forward."

Ultimately, the decision to close Locust Point came down to geography: Baltimore was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kansas City, which will become the sole producer for P&G;'s dishwashing liquid, is a central distribution location.

"Being close to a highway is now more important to most manufacturers than being near a port or a railway, and the highway system favors a suburban location," said Richard P. Clinch, program manager of the Maryland Business Research Partnership at the University of Baltimore.

Despite its blue-collar image, Baltimore long ago ceased to be a manufacturing center. Since the 1950s, it has lost almost 100,000 such jobs, according to one study. Today, only 20

percent of employees work in manufacturing jobs, vs. more than percent four decades ago.

Throughout the 1980s, politicians held out the hope that displaced blue-collar workers could be trained for jobs in the service industry. But that sector is shrinking, too. The jobs produced by rapid advances in technology demand highly skilled workers, and not as many of those.

Mr. Rifkin, the author, likes to point out that General Motors Corp. at its height had more than 600,000 workers. By comparison, software giant Microsoft Corp. currently has 15,000. Company presidents increasingly speak about assignments rather than jobs, and talk hopefully about creating the "virtual workerless factory."

Only a reprieve

In the end, the Locust Point plant got a three-month reprieve. Although almost half the staff was already gone, P&G; delayed the shutdown from June 30 to Sept. 30.

Over the summer, the workers kept trickling away, their decisions about their futures breaking almost neatly into thirds: one-third took early retirement, one-third transferred, and one-third decided to see what else they could find in Baltimore.

"We'd like to see people come out whole or better," said Ms.

Curtis, the plant manager. "Realistically, some won't. But we're focused on making this a win for everybody."

Mike Fritz took a pay cut of $3 an hour to go to work at Lever Bros.' Holabird Avenue plant in Southeast Baltimore, one of P&G;'s competitors, as did about 20 of his colleagues. With time, their pay will approach the wages they enjoyed at Procter & Gamble, but 20 years' seniority is impossible to replace.

Keith Largent and Stewart Godlewski ended up transferring. It was an easy decision for the one-time union president; he likes Cincinnati. For Mr. Godlewski, a Maryland native, the prospect of living on an 11-acre farm outside St. Louis was exciting, but he still hated leaving Pasadena.

"The day we left was really hard, the entire family was in tears," said Mr. Godlewski, whose mother and brother also had worked at the plant. "When we hit I-70, I said, 'We've got to get our act together now.' "

Jim Angelo, who never wanted to punch a time clock again, bought into Allview Liquors in Columbia along with some old friends. "At my age, I just didn't want to make new friends," he explained.

John Wheatley and Helen McMahon took their money to Florida, where the couple could indulge their passion for scuba diving. When it's time to go back to work, they plan to open their own business, perhaps in lawn care. Mr. Wheatley knows one thing: He'll never work for a big company again.

"Big companies are concerned with one thing: how much money they can squeeze out of you," he said.

Robert Bush Jr., the third-generation man who wanted his gold watch, is now business manager for a chiropractic center in Glen Burnie. He still can't believe his daughter won't have a chance to be the fourth generation at P&G.;

As for Joe Brockmeyer, he's not entirely sure what he's going to do.

Even the future of the site itself is uncertain. Domino Sugar Corp, its neighbor, is negotiating to buy the property for storage, but the $13 million deal hasn't been closed yet. It may never close.

This Friday, P&G; will sponsor one last gathering for the employees who stuck it out to the end. A cruise ship will pick them up from the plant and take them out for a few hours. Steamed crabs will be served, along with iced tea, then the boat will bring them back to Procter & Gamble, to walk through the gates one last time.

And then it's over, with nothing to mark their time in Locust Point except 26 empty buildings and the company-produced yearbooks with 215 faces.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
84°