Mayor, state fight for Southwick workers' rights  

MARY SCHWALM/Staff file photoA union representing workers at the Southwick factory in Haverhill, shown here making clothing when the company was operating, said the employees are being denied severance pay.

One week after the Brooks Brothers clothing company filed for bankruptcy and laid off 413 workers at the Southwick factory in Haverhill, local and state leaders are vowing to get the money and benefits employees say are being denied them.

In addition to helping employees, government officials also hope to recoup tax credits given to the company when it moved into the Broadway Business Park in 2009. 

"This fight is just starting," Congresswoman Lori Trahan said during a Sunday Zoom call with Mayor James Fiorentini, state Rep. Andy Vargas, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and members of the UNITE HERE Local 187 union, which represents employees.

"No one can deny the pain that the coronavirus pandemic has caused," Markey said. "Brooks Brothers is not responsible for what the pandemic has caused, but Brooks Brothers is responsible for keeping its word and its promise to its dedicated union workers who are guaranteed severance and health care. Brooks Brothers must give these workers what they are owed."

The Haverhill employees found out July 7 they would not be offered severance packages, according to Ethan Snow, a spokesman for the New England Joint Board union. The union represents 10,000 textile workers across New England, including those at Southwick. 

Brooks Brothers — which has several clothing factories, including Southwick in Haverhill — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection the next day, according to a company statement.

"Brooks Brothers suits may be hanging in countless closets, but we cannot let Brooks Brothers hang these employees out to dry," Markey said, adding that workers' unemployment benefits are only valid until the end of the month.

Vargas said Southwick received tax credits on two occasions, both from the City of Haverhill and the state, because of the company's promise to expand business in the Merrimack Valley. 

"Southwick was a model for the (state) because it was an immigrant and union-run shop," Vargas said. "If we're going to be willing to provide that kind of support, we're going to expect the company to support their workers on their way out. We know Brooks Brothers has felt their fair share of economic uncertainty during COVID, but their CEO is part of the 50th richest family in the world.

"At times like this, we need to make sure we're looking out for people who have poured everything into this company and into our community," he said of he workers.

According to Vargas, the state Economic Assistance Coordinating Council approved $2.1 million in Economic Development Incentive investment tax credits for Southwick when it moved to Haverhill from Lawrence. The company also entered into a TIF (tax increment financing) agreement with the city, which provided a considerable tax break in exchange for doing business in Haverhill. 

In a letter sent Friday of last week, Fiorentini asked Attorney General Maura Healey to take a closer look at the TIF agreements and "all other state tax incentives and tax credits" granted to Brooks Brothers and Southwick in the wake of their recent bankruptcy filing. 

"We were always very proud to say every Brooks Brothers suit made in the United States was made in Haverhill," Fiorentini said. "The company has publicly indicated in an article in the The New York Times that they no longer feel there is a market for American-made men's suits. They implied they intend to make the suits overseas in direct contravention of the agreement which we had with them."

The mayor is petitioning Healey's office to do whatever possible to investigate and pursue legal avenues for return of the money Brooks Brothers received from both the city and state.

"We worked hard to keep Southwick here in the United States because of the jobs they promised to produce and keep," Fiorentini said.

If it is necessary to file a claim in bankruptcy court, Fiorentini asked Healey's office do so before the city is able to hire an attorney to handle the matter.

"The best hope for the workers is that another company takes this over. A job is what (these employees) want," Fiorentini said. "My worry is that they're not going to stop making suits at all, they're going to ship the (jobs) overseas."

 

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