Monday, April 29, 2002

Cheaper labor moves Rocky Shoes production to Puerto Rico

The Associated Press

        NELSONVILLE, Ohio — The tears fell and the applause was faint as the last pair of boots from Rocky Shoes & Boots slid down the assembly line in November.

        Judith Collins, an employee since the 1960s, boxed them up. With that, the 69-year-old company with deep roots in this southeast Ohio community ended production here and moved it to Moca, Puerto Rico.

        “I've been here 36 years,” said Collins, 61. “I wanted four more, and then to retire. This is the only job I've ever had.”

        Workers who spent a lifetime crafting footwear now find their skills aren't needed, as shoe companies nationwide have moved to foreign markets with cheaper labor.

        Rocky Shoes followed suit last fall. Moving its 67 remaining Nelsonville manufacturing jobs was the only way for publicly held Rocky Shoes to thrive and compete, company President Mike Brooks told The Columbus Dispatch for a story Sunday, the first of a three-part series.

        “When we measure productivity, we still can't duplicate Nelsonville in the Dominican, we can't duplicate it in Puerto Rico and I don't think it can be duplicated anywhere,” Brooks said. “That — the productivity — is one side of the numbers game. The sadness is, it's not enough.”

        Getting a shoe made in Nelsonville, an Appalachian town with 5,230 people, costs about $11 an hour. In Puerto Rico, the rate is $6; in the Dominican Republic, $1.25; in China, 40 cents.

        Because of costs, fewer than 25,000 shoe jobs remain in the United States, down from 235,000 in 1972, the Department of Labor said.

        “History shows that it is impossible to stop this trend,” said Oded Shenkar, a professor of global business management at Ohio State University. “Highly developed economies just will not be very competitive in labor-intensive fields. In the long term, it is doomed.”

        Shenkar said some small communities such as Nelsonville are forced to pay the price for free trade.

        “Perhaps what we need to do is help the displaced worker a bit more. I think that's fair,” he said.

        None of Rocky Shoes' shoemakers, most members of the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees Local 146, were offered replacement jobs. The company's corporate headquarters and retail store remain in Nelsonville.

        “I put my time in here. I worked hard. I thought we had given Nelsonville something to be proud of,” said shoemaker Carl Bruce. “Rocky Boots was Nelsonville and vice versa. It didn't have to be this way, I don't think.”

        Bruce, 57, is the middle sibling in a trio of brothers who started work at the factory as young men and left as grandfathers.

        “I would love to have retired from the shoe industry,” he said. “I thought it was going to hang on another 10 or 15 years.”

        Rocky Shoes, which was founded in 1932, bringing jobs to a struggling region during the Depression, did turn out to be the last-surviving shoe factory in Ohio. However, Brooks' family didn't think their business would last as long as it did.

        In 1959, William Brooks sold to the Irving-Drew Shoe Corp., based 30 miles northwest in Lancaster.

        “His vision was that imports were going to destroy the American shoe industry,” Mike Brooks said of his uncle. “And to a certain extent, he was right. He encouraged his five children to get an education and get out of Dodge.”

        John Brooks, Mike's father, loved making shoes and stayed on as an employee. He bought the company back in 1975 for about $640,000. “He somehow got four banks to loan him money on a company that was losing money,” Mike Brooks said.

        Turning work to plants overseas kept the business going. Leather uppers were stitched in South Korea as early as the 1970s. The company first ventured into the Caribbean about 15 years ago.

        “It was a quiet way to try to enhance profits,” Brooks, 55, said. “We didn't tell our customers.”


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