OSHKOSH, WIS. — OSHKOSH, Wis. -- Life in Oshkosh has its certainties. An ice fishing contest on Lake Winnebago in winter. The annual convention of 900,000 recreational pilots in summer. Strangers asking: "You're from Oshkosh? Isn't that where OshKosh B'Gosh bib overalls are made?"
"We used to be able to say 'yes,' " said Richard Wollangk, city manager. "Now we won't be able to say that anymore."
Beginning in April, for the first time in 102 years, Oshkosh won't make OshKosh B'Gosh. Last week, the company announced plans to close the hometown manufacturing plant, lay off 75 workers and ship production of men's bib overalls out of the country. The company's children's clothes are already made outside the city.
Men's bib overalls, a symbol of the American worker, being made overseas?
The company's plans made national news. CNN called; so did National Public Radio. To some folks in this city of 60,000, the outside attention was surprising.
After all, they say, it's not as if Oshkosh is a quaint hamlet of 500 people where 499 people work at the overall factory. And it's not as if the town will lose its claim to fame. The company will still employ about 400 people at company headquarters and a distribution center, though that's down from a peak of 958 six years ago.
"It's always sad when you lose jobs in the community, but the headquarters is still here," said Wollangk. "It's like a lot of clothing manufacturers these days -- the clothing is made offshore. In order to be competitive, that's what happens."
Not surprisingly, to the people who are losing their jobs, the news is more devastating. And yet, even for the 75 workers, the plant closing is hardly a shock.
OshKosh B'Gosh has been laying off workers and moving to contractors outside the United States for several years now. The company has closed more production plants in Tennessee and Kentucky than in Oshkosh. A plant closing in March will idle 400 workers in Columbia, Ky., a region hard hit by the garment industry's trend toward less-costly offshore production.
"There's been so many layoffs in this company that people have become almost complacent," said Beth Heidersdorf, a pocket hemmer with more than 15 years experience at the Oshkosh plant.
"There's been 100 here, 60 there, 30 here. It's slowly been dwindling down. There's a lot of people who've been prepared for this."
Not that they're any less angry. Last weekend, Heidersdorf went to the OshKosh B'Gosh Superstore at the local outlet mall. She stroked the pink-striped infant overalls and baby dresses with scalloped collars. She is pregnant: Her daughter is due in April, about a week after the plant closes.
"I could see her running around in all this stuff and it just makes me sick," said Heidersdorf, who says she makes about $23,000 a year. "They're really cute, but my baby won't be wearing them." She fingered a pint-sized jacket made in India, a rainbow-colored "Baby B'Gosh" top made in Bangladesh, a pink-striped pair of bib overalls made in Honduras.
Union official speaks out
"I want to see made in America, that's what I want to see," said Heidersdorf, vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 126-G. "I'd really like the American public to see that this company is turning its back on the American worker."
But what Heidersdorf wants isn't why the OshKosh layoffs made news last week.
The layoffs made news because of their historical significance: Layoffs at the hometown plant that made the company's original product. It's been just two years since OshKosh B'Gosh marked its 100th birthday, a celebration that included a national search for the oldest pair of bib overalls and a party at Lake Winnebago for employees.
The loss of 75 jobs won't be a catastrophic event in a town with a scant 2.5 percent unemployment rate; in a company where layoffs have been steady; in an industry where offshore production has become the norm. The company will still employ about 4,700 workers in the U.S., say officials.
"The point is that the product is still here, and it still has the OshKosh name on it," said Karen Smith, the company's corporate manager of employee relations and development. "We're not going away."
A lot has changed since the days when an executive -- according to local legend -- heard the line "Oshkosh B'gosh" in a vaudeville show and adopted it as the company's name. Back then, men's bib overalls -- the kind for which Heidersdorf hems 8,000 pockets a day -- were the backbone of the business. But today, 95 percent of the clothes that say "OshKosh B'Gosh" are for children.
A lot has changed
A lot has changed in Oshkosh, too, and there's more going on here than overalls. Driving into town, the first thing you notice is a Korean War-era F-86, poised to soar over the interstate, beckoning visitors to the Experimental Aircraft Association museum -- one of the city's premiere attractions.
There's no Museum of Work Clothes in Oshkosh. The city's nickname is "Oshkosh on the Water" -- not "City of Hickory-Striped Denim." You see more men wearing Green Bay Packers jackets than bibs. In fact, if you want to buy a pair, you have to head to the highway outlet center, where the OshKosh B'Gosh Superstore competes with Tommy Hilfiger and Jones New York.
Oshkosh is a growing city with a healthy economy and a strong manufacturing sector. People boast about the lake, parks, renovated library and the 11,000-student branch of the University of Wisconsin.
The aircraft association convention brings in $90 million annually, and Oshkosh Truck is one of several major employers.
"The real story here is that the [layoff] impact is going to be quickly absorbed by the local economy," said Doug Pearson, director of the local industrial development corporation. "It's neither a psychological nor an economic setback for the community. But it is a setback for the 75 people affected."
It takes a lot of people to make a pair of overalls: People for the straps and buttonholes, people for the lining and pockets, people for the seams and hems and buckles. These are the people who Heidersdorf thinks are forgotten amid the talk that the layoffs won't be too painful for the town. It's Karen, who puts in flies and just got married. It's Pam, who sews reinforcements and will film Heidersdorf's baby shower.
'I love living here'
It's also Sue, who lines back pockets and shopped with her children on Main Street last weekend. "She's going to lose her job, too," said Heidersdorf, pointing out the window of a Main Street cafe as Sue and her family walked by.
Heidersdorf paused, and rubbed her pregnant stomach. "I have a happy life here," she said. "I probably would have stayed at OshKosh B'Gosh until I died. I love living here."
Community pride is something OshKosh B'Gosh celebrated during its centennial year. The company awarded $1,000 to 89-year-old Clyde Mehder, a Florida man who has kept a pair of children's overalls made in Oshkosh by his favorite uncle in 1901. The overalls, a baby gift for Mehder's sister, were worn by 10 children in three generations.
"I don't like to hear that they're moving anything overseas," Mehder, now 90, said last week from his home in Sarasota. "I'm sorry to see it happen. It's an American product, and I think that's where it should be made."
Pub Date: 2/06/97