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End of an era

Union office in Gloversville to close Tuesday

August 29, 2010
By MICHAEL ANICH, The Leader-Herald

GLOVERSVILLE - Tuesday will mark the end of an era in labor relations in Fulton County, when the local union office that has represented thousands of leather workers for the past 50 years closes its doors for good.

That representation continues elsewhere, but the local downtown leather union presence will be history - a symptom of a manufacturing sector that has seen better days.

Mayor Dayton King said there are still "viable leather industry businesses" in the area, but citizens need to be respectful of the past, as Gloversville transitions into newer economic opportunities.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Herbert Rivenburg, a measurer for Carville National Leather in Johnstown, feeds leather into a unit at the shop Wednesday.

"I think we need to continue to let people know about their roots," King said.

Known in recent years as the Workers United office - the former Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees AFL-CIO - will vacate its longtime offices at 99 N. Main St.

According to local leather union business agent Bob Bruse, the roughly 120 glove, tannery, laundry and glue factory workers, will now be served by a district union office in Saratoga Springs.

"They have more members in Saratoga than we have in Gloversville," said Bruse, formerly manager for the district.

Bruse, the only employee left in the union office, has been busy the past couple weeks as filing cabinets and furniture were moved out of the second floor union spaces.

The office had been the home of the Glove Cities/Upper Hudson District, Amalgamated Northeast Regional Joint Board. Now, Bruse said, members from six locals will be absorbed into the Rochester Regional Joint Board, which includes upstate districts such as Saratoga Springs.

Closure of the leather union office is the result of the downfall of the capital of the once-thriving leather and glove industry that gave the city its name. Foreign competition, more regulation and the movement of much of the new manufacturing sector to Fulton County's industrial parks all helped contribute to the demise of the leather industry.

Through the years, Bruse said, the leather union fought to provide good wages to its tannery members. Many strikes were part of that local history. In other ways, the union made an impact too.

"We've made a lot of headway, mostly in safety and heath," said Johnstown resident Richard Handy, who served as president of the local representing the former Pan-American Tannery in the city from 1975-96.

Bruse said for a union to beef up its numbers now, it is better off unionizing employees among other types of employment.

"Now, if you want to gain memberships, you have to get into food services jobs and laundries," he said.

He said not only have "cheap imports" put a stranglehold on the leather industry, the economic development agencies over the years moved many manufacturing jobs to the industrial parks.

"There's no place to organize anymore," Bruse said.

According to Fulton County historical records, in the early 1900s, Fulton County made 92 percent of all gloves in the U.S. A large percentage of area residents reported to their jobs in any of hundreds of factories, 116 of which were located in the city. Twenty years ago, there were 11 tanneries in Fulton County, but that number today is down to a few.

Officials said that the union represented several thousand members in the 1960s and 1970s. Fast-forward to the 21st-century, and Bruse said the roughly 100 actual unionized leather workers remaining are employed at only a few sites, such as Colonial Tanning Corp. in the city, and Carville-National Leather Corp. and Simco Leather Corp., both in Johnstown.

Handy said the leather industry and union representation of it suffered a severe blow in 1994. That was the year the Feuer Leather Corp. - at the time the parent group for Pan-Am, and Karg Bros. Tanners and Allied Split in Johnstown, shut down their operations and laid off hundreds of workers. News accounts in The Leader-Herald back then pointed to various financial problems plaguing the leather industry.

But the 78-year-old Handy said the large drop in unionized workers actually preceded that.

"On an annual basis, the decline started in 1985," he said.

Handy said federal Clean Air Act amendments in 1977 and 1990 also directed environmental controls that leather plants found too expensive. He also said foreign competition from countries such as China and the Philippines hurt the leather industry.

He said the North American Free Trade Act - between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and took effect Jan. 1, 1994 -also "didn't help us any."

Many unions hated NAFTA. Its purpose was to increase efficiency and fairness of trade among the three nations by eliminating tariffs, or taxes, each nation imposed on the others' imports.

Back when he was a local president, Handy said, union members made anywhere from $12 to $30 an hour, which was a very good wage back then.

One of the local unionized workers - Carville-National Leather Corp. Shop Steward Bill Dudley - said he liked the fact the city union office was just a few miles to the north for his members.

"So far, I've [been] pretty fortunate being here," Dudley said. "I've had no severe problems."

But Dudley said the closing of the local leather office is "not a good thing" for his union because if big issues do arise in the future, his workers have to travel to Saratoga Springs. He said the union members lose that "comfort" of resolving issues locally.

"Now, people are going to have to make that trip," Dudley said.



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