New Textile Business in New Bedford Bucks Trend

NEW BEDFORD — Bucking the long-term decline of the region’s garment industry, a new textile business opened its doors Monday.
New Bedford Tactical Gear is set to begin work this week with 15 former employees of the Eagle Industries plant that shut down earlier this summer. The company, which will be making ammunition bags for the military, aims to add another 40 workers within the next few months and possibly expand to 100 by end of the year.
“It’s amazing to win this, to have a new company, and to find someone with human hearts,” said former Eagle worker Elisa Rios, 42, of New Bedford. Rios, who moved from Puerto Rico to the city 19 years ago, worked for two years at the former Eagle plant.
In March, Alliant Techsystems Inc. bought Eagle Industries and its South End plant, where military backpacks were made. Less than two months later, ATK announced it was shutting down the plant and moving the work to Puerto Rico. Before Eagle took it over, the plant had served as the Michael Bianco Inc. factory — the site of a massive federal immigration raid in March 2007.
Tactical Gear is a subsidiary of New Jersey Headwear Corp. of Newark, N.J. The parent company is serving a subcontractor to Polymer Technologies Inc., a Clifton, N.J., manufacturer that was awarded a Department of Defense contract. Polymer makes reusable ammunition packs for machine guns and hires subcontractors for sewing the bags.
Mitch Cahn, president of New Jersey Headwear, said the goal is to expand to 100 employees by the end of the year. He is looking to the Massachusetts congressional delegation to help by delivering military or other government contracts, but he also is trying to bring in other business.
The launch of the new company comes after decades of decline in the area’s textile industry, as employers closed shop or moved to locations with cheaper labor.
“Labor in Massachusetts is expensive, but I believe you get what you pay for,” said Cahn, during the formal announcement held Monday morning inside the business’s location at 630 Belleville Ave.
In an interview after the event, Cahn cited a couple of factors he believes favor opening this textile business in the city. First, federal agencies are required to buy American-made products, he said.
“That levels the playing field regarding competition from imports,” Cahn said.
So the question becomes whether it made sense to locate in the city.
To make up for the extra cost of doing business in the Bay State, Cahn said the company will use a business practice known as lean manufacturing. He said the approach includes having all employees skilled to carry out multiple tasks and capable of adding value to a product.
As part of the lean manufacturing approach, the Tactical Gear employees will receive training from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership beginning Wednesday.
Cahn said the new company will pay the workers what they earned at Eagle, plus benefits guaranteed by a union contract, which includes health insurance, pension, and vacation and holiday pay. Eagle paid its New Bedford stitchers approximately $8.50 per hour.
Neal J. Goldenberg, vice president of Polymer Technologies, said there are benefits to treating employees well. While some people might focus only on the balance sheets, the motivation of workers also is important.
“It’s important to identify that, and I think Mitch does it wonderfully with his workers,” Goldenberg said.
During Monday’s event, elected officials and union leaders noted they were celebrating the opening of a factory, rather than watching another factory close its doors.
“It’s not a plant that relocated,” City Councilor David Alves said. “It’s not a plant that is changing its name. It’s a brand-new facility.”
Rios, one of the new company’s first employees, thanked the union, Workers United, and elected officials for their efforts to put former Eagle employees back to work. She also gave credit to the other workers.
“Together, we achieved this,” she said through a translator.
Edgar Romney, secretary-treasurer of Workers United, said the arrival of Tactical Gear demonstrates that labor, management and government can create and save jobs when they work together. He said the employees are thrilled with their new opportunity.
“They’re elated to have the opportunity to go back to work,” Romney said in an interview. “We’re very pleased Mitch Cahn elected to get into this venture, so these workers have an opportunity to get back to work.”
bboyd@s-t.com
August 18, 2009
Source URL: http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090818/NEWS/908180336/-1/NEWSMAP

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