Business & Tech

Markey tries to intercede in Fall River plant closure

Senator Edward Markey said a Philips official told him the manufacturing jobs are definitely going south.
Senator Edward Markey said a Philips official told him the manufacturing jobs are definitely going south.

There’s usually no turning back once a factory closure is announced. That didn’t stop Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey from trying, after Philips Lighting recently decided to shut down manufacturing operations in Fall River.

Philips plans to eliminate about 160 production and product development jobs in Fall River and move the manufacturing work to Monterrey, Mexico. Markey on Monday called Chris White, the Dutch company’s Americas president, to ask if there was room for reconsideration, and to register his displeasure if the closure is indeed a done deal.

It was worth a shot, but Markey says White told him the jobs are definitely going south.

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Layoffs are scheduled to start this summer, and continue through early 2019, although a Philips spokeswoman says an unspecified number of white-collar positions will remain. Markey asked White to consider the displaced workers for openings at other Philips sites in Massachusetts. They aren’t factories, but Markey says he is confident the employees could be retrained. But it’s unclear whether Philips workers in Fall River would want to commute to Andover, Cambridge, or Burlington.

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Meanwhile, Massachusetts Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III sent a letter on Monday to White signed by the state’s congressional delegation – all nine representatives as well as Markey and Senator Elizabeth Warren – criticizing the closure. They pointed to tax breaks that Fall River gave the plant in the 1990s, and a state agency’s more recent subsidy for a wind turbine.

Philips Lighting recently said it would spend nearly $200 million to buy back stock this year — a move the delegation said represented a shareholder windfall at the expense of workers like those in Fall River.

“A stock buyback happening in the same timeframe while Massachusetts workers are being laid off, it’s just plain wrong,” Markey said. “This is just the perfect illustration of how large corporations make very detached and ruthless decisions that have profound impacts on people who are doing great work.”

Employees were first notified of the closure on April 20. Company spokeswoman Melissa Kanter said in an e-mail the move is part of a broader corporate plan to “drive operational excellence” by optimizing production to remain competitive. Philips Lighting, she said, is committed to working with union and government officials to help employees with job placement and retraining programs. The closure underscores how many of the state’s industrial cities have not benefitted much from the tech-driven boom in Greater Boston. Fall River’s unemployment rate has been hovering around 8 percent this year so far — twice the state average.

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Joseph Santos, an assembler at the factory, knows his job is history. But the Fall River resident, president of the IBEW Local 1499 that represents workers at the Philips Lighting plant, said he hopes the blowback over the closure will at least prompt the next top executive to think twice before moving jobs elsewhere.

“Even if they can’t protect our jobs,” Santos said, “maybe they’ll protect someone else’s jobs.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.