Union battling to save plant Hagerstown facility has marched back from brink before; Maryland economy


HAGERSTOWN -- The aircraft parts manufacturing plant in Hagerstown that's slated to close late next year is the victim of an ever-changing aerospace industry that has shrunk the facility's work force from thousands in the 1970s to just 199 workers today.

Yet, the facility has shown a remarkable ability to remain vital through three owners, and union officials said last week that it's premature to sound the plant's death knell -- despite last week's announcement by BFGoodrich Co. that it plans to close the plant and lay off workers.

"The economic outlook for the aerospace industry is there is not a lot of work," said Jim Slayman, unit chairman for the plant's production and maintenance department for the United Auto Workers of America Amalgamated Local 842.

"This is the greatest work force anywhere, and they have gone through hell three times," he said. "There's a lot of hope something can be done."

BFGoodrich announced the fate of the Hagerstown plant Wednesday, the same day that Boeing Co., the world's biggest plane maker, said it would slash jet production -- and, in effect, reduce demand for the parts BFGoodrich makes.

"What's going on, is Goodrich is seeing a decline in demand for the airplanes for which these plants are supplying parts. Therefore, there isn't as much of a reason to keep these plants around," said Sam Pearlstein, an analyst with ING Barings in New York.

The Hagerstown plant is a composite bonding facility where the assemblies that house the engines of commercial aircraft are made. It supplies parts for the Boeing 737, 747 and 757, the MD-11, various Airbus models, and other types of wide-body aircraft.

The plant is among Hagerstown's top 30 employers, said Tim Troxell, assistant director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

"When Boeing hurts, BFGoodrich hurts," said Douglas A. Stone, president of Local 842. "It's a trickle-down effect. The aircraft industry will forever have extremely high peaks and extremely low valleys."

The plan now, the union leaders said, is to persuade BFGoodrich not to close the plant. The union was successful with that tactic in 1994 when it persuaded Rohr Inc., the plant's previous owner, not to close it.

The union has a meeting scheduled for this week with "top people" in the company's aerostructures division, Slayman said. "We'll use that time to present a case for why this plant should remain open," he said.

In the meantime, the union is working to line up a prospective buyer. "We have a lot of irons in the fire," he said.

Richard C. Mike Lewin, the newly appointed secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said his agency first will address the needs of the displaced workers, and then look to finding another use for the facility.

"Goodrich's decision had nothing to do with the facility or the expertise of the workers," he said. "This is a company-specific dynamic, so there probably will be some opportunity to do

something with the building."

So far, the plant has had three lives.

Fairchild Industries opened its aircraft production plant near the airport in 1941 with 1,000 employees, instantly making aerospace a major industry in Hagerstown.

In 1958, it built the bonding facility and two other buildings, bringing Fairchild's Hagerstown employment to just under 10,000 workers.

Slayman began working for the plant in 1978, when employment had shrunk to 4,000 workers.

In 1987, Chantilly, Va.-based Fairchild closed the complex, but sold the bonding plant to Rohr, a California-based maker of jet-engine housings. In the best of times during Rohr's ownership, there were 600 workers.

But business began to thin out in 1993, and Rohr announced that it would close the Hagerstown plant the following year.

With an outside feasibility study commissioned by the union and state officials, "we were able to change the company's mind," Slayman said.

The plant's future became uncertain again when BFGoodrich, the eighth-largest U.S. aerospace company, acquired Rohr in 1997 for $1.3 billion. Goodrich had 1997 revenue of $3.4 billion. An estimated $1 billion of that was contributed by Rohr.

Not much changed at the plant, except for a new sign outside. All of the nearly 200 workers remained on board. In fact, many Hagerstown residents still refer to the BFGoodrich plant as Rohr.

But BFGoodrich did say it would evaluate the plant after a year, said Craig Chambers, a tool-and-die maker at the plant and unit vice chairman for the union.

And one year to the month after finalizing the acquisition, the company announced that it would close four of the 11 plants it acquired from Rohr.

Along with Hagerstown, plants in Heber Springs and Sheridan, Ark., and Hamburg, Germany, will close during the last three months of 1999, the company said.

"Essentially, we took a look at our current and future production needs, and we saw where we would be able to streamline operations and reduce costs," Rob Jewell, a BFGoodrich spokesman in Richfield, Ohio, said last week.

The closing of the four plants is expected to save about $10 million a year beginning in 2000, Jewell said.

The layoff of the Hagerstown plant's entire work force of 199 would not be a crushing blow to the Hagerstown or Washington County, Troxell said.

"Obviously, we never like to lose manufacturing jobs, but our unemployment level is relatively low and the economy is still strong, and from my visits to other local employers, many of them say they need more workers," he said.

"I guess I'm too much of an optimist," Troxell said.

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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