Another day, another letter that must be fired off to a corporate titan imploring him to do the right thing.
This time, it’s three members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation — Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Representative Lori Trahan — who are pressing Jamie Salter, chief executive of Authentic Brands Group and one of the new owners of Brooks Brothers, to reopen its Haverhill factory. After the upscale clothing company filed for bankruptcy reorganization in July, it shuttered the factory for good, leaving 413 workers without jobs.
The politicians’ request is not exactly wishful thinking.
Last week, a judge approved the $325 million sale of Brooks Brothers to Authentic Brands and SPARC Group. Authentic Brands is a multi-billion-dollar company that owns some of the biggest names in retail including Barneys New York, Forever 21, Nautica, Nine West, and Juicy Couture.
And it wouldn’t be the first time Authentic Brands kept open a plant when it took over a company. After it bought high-end men’s suit makers Hart Schaffner and Hickey Freeman, that firm’s factories in Illinois and New York kept operating.
“We are encouraged by your past commitment to American manufacturing jobs and keeping American factories open after your purchases of Hart Schaffner and Hickey Freeman in 2012, and we urge you to continue this commitment, and Brooks Brothers’ Made in USA tradition, by keeping the Southwick factory open,” wrote Warren, Markey, and Trahan.
This is the second letter in a month that the congressional trio has sent about the Haverhill factory — named after suit label Southwick, which Brooks Brothers also owns. They wrote a letter on July 10 to the previous CEO, Claudio Del Vecchio, urging the scion of an Italian billionaire to pay severance to laid-off workers.
Brooks Brothers offered severance packages to employees, including workers at its other US factories but not to Southwick staff because that was not part of the union contract. Unite Here Local 187, which represents Southwick workers, said the union has the right to negotiate for severance when a factory closes, but Brooks Brothers management refused to budge.
The upscale clothing company has since agreed to extend health care coverage through the end of August and pay out accrued vacation and sick time. In their letter, Markey, Warren, and Trahan acknowledge the change, but write that without a severance package “these employees — our constituents — will soon be without a source of income. As the expected new owner of Brooks Brothers, you have a significant opportunity to save these workers’ livelihoods.”
As I wrote in my last column on Brooks Brothers, I hoped the new owners would show some trace of humanity. Many of these workers are women, and many are immigrants and refugees from around the world — Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Nepal. They were proud to be part of a storied brand.
Now they have been sent off without severance into the worst job market in decades.
I reached out to Authentic Brands, and a spokeswoman declined comment.
But Markey, Warren, and Trahan shouldn’t let up on their letter-writing campaign.
The next missive should be to Daniel Doherty and Brian Kelly, principals of Eastern Real Estate, the Boston commercial real estate firm that bought out of bankruptcy the Southwick factory, and the 21 acres it sits on, for $14 million. The firm has invested in projects such as University Station in Westwood and Linden Square in Wellesley.
What are Eastern’s plans for the factory, which was originally built as a Lowe’s home improvement store?
I reached out to Doherty and Kelly and got no response. Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini also had no luck getting answers from Eastern about its intentions.
“It’s a mystery,” said Ethan Snow, chief of staff for Unite Here New England Joint Board.
If Authentic doesn’t need another garment factory, Eastern could reopen the Haverhill factory to make masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment desperately needed during the COVID-19 outbreak.
That’s not a far-fetched idea. In late March, Brooks Brothers started to manufacture masks and gowns at its US factories, even after workers were sent home in Massachusetts because of the pandemic. Instead of making suits, shirts, and ties, about 40 employees temporarily returned to sew masks, fulfilling orders from hospitals and the US Navy among others.
Health Supply US — which has agreed to buy the Brooks Brothers’ factory in North Carolina — wants to hire back about 150 workers and reopen the facility for manufacturing. Health Supply makes medical supplies, such as masks, gloves, and gowns.
At least until there is a vaccine, Eastern should keep the factory open to produce masks and other equipment to protect people from COVID-19. The firm can tap a ready-made workforce of skilled people who used to make tailored clothing, from trousers to top coats.
It’s a lot better than the alternative: razing the building for yet another lifestyle shopping center. That’s the last thing consumers need during a pandemic.
But masks and gowns made in Massachusetts — that’s exactly what we need now.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.