Protect the Country, Buy American

No one cared about Ansell workers before 9-11. Now patriotism might just save their factory.

Bob Pryor has given 22 years to the Ansell Perry surgical glove plant in Massillon. His chances for a 23rd are dim -- the plant shut down last month. But in an unlikely and altogether unwanted twist, Pryors livelihood could be saved by anthrax.I dont want to say the anthrax scare has been good, because its not good. I dont wish that on nobody, says the 40-year-old maintenance worker. At the same time, its a reality, and were a solution.

A solution that politicians -- once unmoved by the plight of the factorys 100 workers -- have hailed since September, now that a clash over job security has mutated into one of national security. Indeed, rising from the ashes of tragedy could be a new blue-collar rallying cry: Protect the Country, Buy American.

The Ansell factory, opened in 1956, was the nations lone remaining manufacturer of surgical gloves when it closed December 21. The plants last-of-its-kind status drew scarce attention before September 11, when latex gloves ranked just above Inside Schwartz on the list of products vital to the countrys interests.

Then came the terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax panic. Suddenly, surgical gloves werent just for doctors anymore. As demand swelled, the plants union and U.S. Representative Ralph Regula seized on the countrys newfound patriotism and fear of spores.

The Navarre Republican recently won House approval for an amendment that prods the Department of Defense to buy American-made gloves and other goods whenever possible. His proposal, tucked into a multibillion-dollar defense spending bill, would complement an existing Buy American law that covers clothing.

Regula holds no illusions that the initiative will sway Ansell officials, who plan to sell the factory and shift its operations to India and Malaysia. Rather, he hopes his measure will turn the military into a huge, built-in customer base for U.S.-produced surgical gloves and thereby persuade a potential buyer to reopen the factory. A Michigan company already has shown interest.

September 11 has changed our thinking on a lot of domestic issues, and the need for products that are vital to national security -- including latex gloves -- has exploded as a result of that, says Regula, whose amendment still must gain Senate approval.

If American taxpayers are footing the bill for the military, they should have access to the jobs that manufacture the products the military uses. We dont get any income tax from Malaysia.

Its no surprise that Dave Kennard, president of Steelworkers Local 601-L and a 15-year Ansell employee, parrots that notion. In fact, he charges Ansell with desertion -- of workers and the country.

What would we do if a major conflict broke out here at home and we didnt have factories to produce what we need? he says. Whether its latex gloves or steel, we need to have companies in our country to produce it, and Ansell Perry is selling out America.

Theres nothing novel about politicians and unions wrapping labor causes inside patriotic rhetoric. But invoking September 11 jacks up the morality quotient of any issue to which its applied. As a result, Regulas call for the Department of Defense to buy U.S.-made gloves comes freighted with an 800-pound ethical obligation.

The America First mindset has trickled down to state and local politicians as well. State Representative Kurt Schuring (R-Jackson Township) cautions that a Third World nation could literally hold us hostage if the U.S. lacks a surgical glove supplier of its own when bioterrorists strike.

We are, on one hand, putting our men and women of the military at risk to support America in the fight against terrorism. But on the other hand, the very same government that is waging this war is buying vital products for our national security from other countries -- and that puts American workers at risk.

This month, Schuring recruited fellow Representative Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland) to file a federal injunction to halt removal of the factorys equipment. Grendell, a lawyer, previously helped delay the closing of Clevelands LTV plant by several weeks to extend the search for a buyer.

The specter of so many politicians -- especially Republicans -- taking up the Buy American banner marks a dramatic change from early 2001.

Last spring, union leaders met with company officials, state and city job-development officials, and staff members for Regula, Schuring, and Governor Bob Taft. When union reps suggested the importance of a U.S. surgical glove supplier to national security, the others volleyed back skepticism. They said, You guys just want to keep the jobs here -- youre fighting a lost cause on a vague issue, Kennard recalls.

By the time the group gathered again in November, the cynics had crossed over. They were saying, We cant believe you were right, Kennard says.

Ansell workers say the attacks roused a country that, during much of the go-go 90s, ignored the drain of manufacturing jobs to other nations. Ohio alone has lost some 100,000 factory jobs in the last decade, according to one state estimate.

Bob Scharver, a maintenance worker at the plant since 1978, has a wife and two children. He chokes up as he describes how his 11-year-old son, aware of his fathers dilemma, volunteered to quit school and get a job to help support the family.

No one would ever want the terrorist attacks to happen. But it did wake people up, Scharver says. Why should our government be buying gloves overseas when we could be buying American-made gloves? If it hadnt been for the attacks and the anthrax situation, I doubt that our government and Ralph Regula would have stepped in.

While workers harbor conflicted feelings about September 11, they betray no ambivalence toward Ansell CEO Harry Boon and his decision to close the plant. That guys no better than the people were at war with in Afghanistan, Pryor says.

Ansell employs 12,500 people at plants in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The company also still operates a factory in Alabama, where it makes vinyl gloves, handling the Postal Services demand for some 1.2 million pairs a day. Spokesman Phil Corke cites that as proof of Ansells strong presence in the U.S.

Corke dismisses speculation that Ansell shuttered its Massillon operation to exploit lax industrial regulations abroad and says the company isnt the first latex glove maker to leave -- merely the last. Every other latex surgeon glove manufacturer has been moving overseas.

True, but Ansell is the only one to depart after the deadliest act of terrorism in U.S. history. That gives the companys critics a wide berth, as does its refusal to sell the Massillon factorys equipment. Workers say including the equipment in a sale would be a good-faith gesture and would speed the search for a buyer. Corke responds that Ansell's equipment is just that -- Ansell's equipment, destined for foreign lands.