The reputation of a 'slash and burn' employer

JUST before Christmas last year, when workers at Timex's Dundee circuit-board plant were receiving first word of redundancies, 75 employees at the parent company in Connecticut were given the sack.

A week later - on New Year's Eve - as a result of a decision to box Timex watches in the Philippines where they are assembled, another 75 employees at the Torrington packaging plant were let go, many of whom had spent more than 30 years working for the company.

While few were surprised by the lay-offs or by the closure of Timex's last mechanical-watch plant in nearby Waterbury, community leaders in the company's home base say they were angered to discover that the 150 Torrington workers had to fight for severance pay.

'Only after we held town meetings and threatened to picket local shopping malls did Timex agree to meet with them,' said Merrill Gay, of the Naugatuck Valley Project, a coalition of citizens from the area's decaying mill towns.

According to Timex, however, the company did not refuse to meet the workers; talks were held later because some issues remained 'to be clarified'.

Timex, advertised as the US's last domestic watch manufacturer, has a reputation as a 'slash and burn' employer in Waterbury, where it was founded 135 years ago.

Global competition may make the transfer of jobs to the Philippines and Thailand inevitable, 'but it's clear they could have been a lot more civil to people who have spent 25 and 30 years of their life working for the company,' said Bob Piasecki, a local business journalist who followed the protracted severance dispute.

The workers were finally given a settlement roughly equal to a week's pay for each year's service, to a maximum of 10 weeks, plus dollars 256 (pounds 175) Christmas bonus. The company also agreed to contribute dollars 40,000 (pounds 27,400) to a local retraining fund.

Timex, controlled by Fred Olsen, a Norwegian-US engineer who owns the Olsen shipping line, with world-wide sales estimated at about dollars 500m (pounds 340m), outsells its next four US competitors combined. President Bill Clinton wore a Timex watch when he gave his State of the Union message to Congress in February.

'He has sported a Timex for at least four or five years,' said Susie Watson, a company spokeswoman, who added that Mr Clinton 'was just being a good Arkansas governor.' Little Rock is the site of Timex's only US manufacturing plant, employing 700 people to make watch cases that are shipped to the Far East for assembly and reimportation. Which explains why Timex, supposedly the US's only domestic watchmaker, has had Arkansas politicians pressing Washington to abandon the 14 per cent tariff on imported watches.

With the closure of its Waterbury plant last May, Timex maintains only a distribution centre and its corporate headquarters in the state, with fewer than 350 employees.

Now even that minimal presence may be threatened. A rumour, traced back to a local property broker, has it that Timex is considering moving its remaining facilities to a site near Raleigh, north Carolina - like Arkansas, a state with anti-union labour laws.

'That's news to me,' Ms Watson said in an interview this week.