For immediate release
March 16, 2016
Today, Polartec workers and their allies participated in a national mobilization at REI stores around the country, calling on REI to oppose the relocation of Polartec’s historic facility in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Participating cities included Austin; Berkeley, CA; Boston; Chicago; Denver; Detroit; Framingham, MA; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; New York City; Minneapolis; Missoula, MT; Pittsburgh; Portland; Reading, MA; San Antonio; San Diego; San Francisco; Seattle and St. Louis.
Last December, Polartec announced its plan to close its main facility in Lawrence and relocate most of its production to Tennessee. This decision will impact over 300 unionized workers—members of the UNITE HERE New England Joint Board—as well as their families and the encompassing community.
The proposed move will also drastically change the level of experience in Polartec’s workforce, a change that could largely affect the innovation and quality standards for which that company is widely renowned.
“REI has shown that it is possible to run a profitable business while helping to solve environmental and social problems, as well as maintaining social responsibility towards their employees for decades,” said Warren Pepicelli, Manager of the UNITE HERE New England Joint Board, “REI has demonstrated that business can be an agent of positive change, and encouraging Polartec to stay in Lawrence upholds those values.”
Union leaders estimate that an additional 700 indirect jobs could be lost in Lawrence, where 28.5% of the population lives under the poverty line. The city’s median household income of $34,496 is the fourth-lowest of all 351 towns and cities in Massachusetts.
“My uncle was the first person in my family to work at Malden Mills, which became Polartec, and he arranged for other members of my family to come from Portugal to work here,” said Tony Melo, who has worked at the facility for 31 years and is currently employed in the knitting department, “By working at Polartec we could afford a good life and we have stayed loyal and dedicated to the company. It’s our experience that allows for the innovation that Polartec is known for. But what are we getting in return? By picking up and abandoning Lawrence, Polartec is threatening to destroy our livelihoods.”
Polartec workers have an average of 18 years of experience, and many have been with the company for as long as 40 years. Private Equity firm Versa Capital acquired ownership of the mill in 2007 from former CEO Aaron Feuerstein, who was well-known for the generosity he showed by paying workers for months while rebuilding the mill after a disastrous 1995 fire.
REI itself has built a reputation as a company that considers its employees “the heart of the coop and the ultimate source of success.” The company made headlines last Thanksgiving by closing all of its stores on Black Friday, and giving its 12,000 employees the day off.
The UNITE HERE New England Joint Board represents nearly 10,000 workers in the six New England states and New York in the textile, garment, manufacturing, distribution, laundry, food service, and human services industries.