La Crosse Footwear, a major employer for more than 100 years, in western Wisconsin, closed Friday. The Footwear plant has hit a financial slowdown and for the last few years, has gradually moved production overseas. At one time, the La Crosse plant employed more than 1,500 people, putting out a sturdy line of boots, raincoats and shoes. When it closed, only 139 were left.
Pat Pierce has worked with LaCrosse Footwear for more than 30 years. She would have been able to retire had the company stayed open a few months longer. (MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)
MOST PLANT WORKERS WERE NOT SURPRISED when they got their lay-off notices in May. The company, which has had trouble competing for several years with other shoe manufacturers, has been gradually farming out jobs overseas to Asia.
Inside the factory, industrial-sized fans circulate the warm air. Judy Givin will be 51 on Sunday; she's worked at the factory since she graduated from high school.
"Factory is all I know," she said.
Her current task is putting Made in China stickers on La Crosse Footwear shoe boxes. The six-inch La Crosse logo overshadows the tiny generic China sticker. Judy says she'll be looking for another manufacturing job. "The body isn't like it was when it was 20 years old," she admits.
Some employees who are set to retire, wonder if they'll get their full retirement benefits. Workers will receive vacation pay through mid-July. Company officials refused to discuss how they will handle severance pay for employees.
Bill Larkin, the old plant manager, retired in the knick of time. Larkin remembers the comradery at Footwear. "It was a great place to work. It was like one big family. We even had a song," he said.
At one time this plant put out 12- to 13,000 boots a day.
At the end, the factory used only a portion of the cavernous facility as it prepared to close its doors. But with sales slowing and losses growing, the company is moving the production overseas. In May, the company reported a first-quarter loss of $1.4 million. Net sales for the first quarter were down six percent from the same period last year.
Following the lead of many other shoemakers, the company is shipping the production of its rubber footwear products to China to cut costs and be more competitive. The company still makes footwear in Racine, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Portland, Oregon, where rumor has it they'll be moving their headquarters.
Robert Sullivan, the factory's vice president of finance, says the change is necessary to survive in a global marketplace. "Things changed. Competing products changed. Hiking boots took away the rubber market. Consumer attitude changed; USA made is no longer a preference of mine," according to Sullivan.
"Consumer attitude changed; 'USA-made' is no longer a preference of mine"
- Robert Sullivan
La Crosse Footwear VP of Finance
United Steelworkers of America Local 14 Secretary Susan Ames says no one benefits from this change. She says the standard of living in China won't improve. The consumers aren't benefitting. And American manufacturing workers, like herself, lose out. Ames is 45 and has made boots for almost 10 years. She will now return to school to learn how to fix computer hardware.
With union help, employees were able to get some education funding. While taking a recent smoke break at the factory, Ames worries about how she'll afford health insurance as a full time student.
"I'd say there's a lot of bitterness here right now because of the fact they've been very loyal employees. They consider this a big slap in the face to have jobs taken away."
She and other steelworker supporters blame free-trade agreements like NAFTA for the loss of American manufacturing jobs. Many years ago the rubber-mill workers merged with the steel workers.
Mayor John Medinger says he's saddened - but not surprised - by the company's move. Lay-off announcements this week by the Trane Company follow the recent closing of G. Heileman Brewing and Winona Knitting Mills across the river in La Crescent. Medinger says La Crosse is a city in transition.
While some former footwear employees will find jobs in the service industry, Medinger says technology jobs are the wave of the future. It appears La Crosse Footwear will retain a retail presence in the city, but their product will be made in China and their headquarters will be out of state.