Brooks Brothers CEO Claudio Del Vecchio certainly made the workers of the company’s Haverhill factory feel special.
“He used to come every year for the Christmas party … and talk a big game,” recalled one of those workers, Shirley Calvin, who met Del Vecchio.
These days, Del Vecchio, the scion of an Italian billionaire, may have more in common with Ebenezer Scrooge, having denied severance to the 413 employees at the Haverhill factory, which is slated to close next week after the clothing maker filed for bankruptcy reorganization.
“I’m highly upset,” said Calvin, 62, who worked as a machine operator for a decade. “We walked out with nothing. I’m so confused. I don’t know what to do now.”
The story, unfortunately, is a familiar one. Remember how the Four Seasons on Boylston Street initially denied full severance to nearly 200 workers it laid off in May?
After a public outcry, including from Representative Joe Kennedy and Senator Ed Markey, the five-star hotelier reversed course and paid the severance it owed its workers after the pandemic crippled the business. The company even apologized.
With Brooks Brothers, we have yet another luxury brand built on the backs of the working class failing to do the right thing. But it has been a far different outcome for the stitchers, pressers, cutters, and shippers of the Haverhill factory known as Southwick.
Not even members of Congress – Representative Lori Trahan, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Markey – could change Del Vecchio’s mind. The politicians sent a July 10 letter to the CEO asking for a “full and fair consideration” of offering severance and extending health care coverage.
“I’ll be honest. I am frustrated I have not heard back,” Trahan told me.
The Haverhill factory is in the Democrat’s district. Her grandmother, a Brazilian immigrant, worked in the Lowell garment mills, and Trahan can’t stand how Brooks Brothers is treating its employees after the going got tough.
“They are invisible,” Trahan added. “They deserve better.”
I also tried to get Brooks Brothers to respond but a spokeswoman declined to comment.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough public outrage over the plight of these factory workers. Many of the Four Seasons employees got to know their well-heeled customers, having served them dinner and drinks at the Bristol Lounge, where movers and shakers of Boston have gathered for decades. Some of those patrons vowed never to come back unless ex-workers got better treatment.
But few people, if any, ever meet the individuals who make their clothes. It’s as if these Brooks Brothers workers are out of sight and out of mind.
So let me tell you about them. Many of them are women, and many are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. Others are refugees from Burma and Nepal. Some have worked at the factory for decades.
And like the Four Season workers, they were proud to be part of a storied brand.
It could be that many people are giving Brooks Brothers a free pass because the company is in dire financial straits with the coronavirus pandemic shuttering retail stores, and the future of business attire uncertain as people continue to work from home.
But that would be misguided. The company is not going out of business. It’s gearing up to be sold, and bidders are lining up.
Brooks Brothers is giving severance to other laid off workers — and even offering retention bonuses to some. In its bankruptcy filings, the company has asked the court to approve paying out millions of dollars in compensation, benefits, severance, and bonuses.
Many of Brooks Brothers’ unionized workers in other parts of the country are getting severance as part of their collective bargaining agreements. The Haverhill factory is, by far, Brooks Brothers’ biggest unionized shop. This might seem like a situation in which its union, Unite Here Local 187, failed them.
But that’s not likely the case, said University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Robert Forrant, who specializes in labor and economic history. In a prior career, he was the business agent for a labor union, so he knows that when a factory closes union and management can engage in a new round of bargaining over the effect on workers.
“All things are doable at the negotiating table if both sides are willing,” said Forrant.
Ethan Snow, chief of staff for Unite Here New England Joint Board, said the union presented the company with several proposals, including severance and a one-year extension of health care benefits. The company, according to Snow, would only consider providing computers at the factory to make it easier for workers to file for unemployment benefits.
“They were making some of the finest quality clothing of the world,” said Snow. “How is that not worth something? It has been worth so much for this company for so long.”
Gary Drinkwater, of the eponymous men’s clothing shop Drinkwater’s Cambridge, said the Haverhill factory produced other labels as well, including Southwick suits. He used to carry them because he liked being able to offer something made in Massachusetts.
Drinkwater said it was “painful” to watch the decline of Brooks Brothers. But not offering severance in the middle of a pandemic and during one of the worst job markets ever seems cruel and unusual.
“You have to have some humanity,” said Drinkwater. “I don’t think this company has humanity.”
Brooks Brothers is being sold, and let’s hope the new owners will have some humanity. It can’t be that hard in a multimillion-dollar deal to find the means to pay severance to workers who have built the brand.
But what they really want is their jobs back, and the factory to reopen. Made in America has to mean something again.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.