Kutztown plant closure leads to tougher times

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KUTZTOWN, Pa. -- Steel and iron and sweat and pride have been produced for nearly one and half centuries along the banks of the Saucony Creek in Kutztown.

The notion that it all came to an end May 5 -- that the sprawling McConway & Torley foundry complex will no longer churn out massive steel ingots or railroad car couplings or giant teeth for earth-scooping machines -- cannot, in Dennis Kocher's view, eclipse the importance of pinpricks.

Mr. Kocher's wife, Nancy, 62, is a diabetic. She pricks herself for a self-blood test four times a day, injects insulin and nearly died four years ago.

So even though Mr. Kocher worked at what is now called McConway & Torley for 46 years, it was not the prospect of losing his job that hurt the most when the plant closure was announced two months ago. It was the secondary effect: that his wife would be without a health care plan.

"It was like a bomb was dropped on me," Mr. Kocher said.

The plant had operated since 1869 under various names. The unexpected announcement on March 5 that the plant would close in two months set off a scramble for new jobs and, in many cases, health care coverage.

Mr. Kocher, one of 130 employees who were to lose their jobs, was about to turn 65. He faced long odds but late last month he was offered a full-time job at a Schuylkill County manufacturer, with health care coverage.

"It took a lot of pressure off us," Mrs. Kocher said.

Aside from the frightening prospect of joblessness, employees wondered exactly why the Texas-based company that owned the plant decided to close it.

In a short, written statement, plant owner Trinity Industries of Dallas blamed the closing on decreased business.

Employees had other theories.

There were suspicions that Trinity wanted to break the union that represented most employees and reopen the plant in the future, or that it wanted to transfer work to low-cost plants in Mexico, or even that the union helped precipitate the closing by seeking too much in labor negotiations. There also was talk around Kutztown that Trinity did not like the rates charged by the borough's self-run electrical distribution system.

Angel Berrios of Reading, a 25-year employee, said the Kutztown plant was a good place to work. He made $18.73 an hour as a warehouse foreman and safety crew leader. "Not much I can do about it," he said.

At the same time, it galled him that no severance pay was offered.

The March 5 letter from McConway & Torley to the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union informed it that permanent plant closure would occur May 5.

David Yopconka, the plant manager, was interviewed inside the lobby of the plant, where old photos depict its rich history. Mr. Yopconka said Trinity's McConway & Torley operation was hurt by a downturn in large construction and mining.

"Market share is just at the point where we cannot support all the facilities," he said. "We care about our employees and we want to make the best transition for them."

Some, he said, would likely be offered jobs at other locations.

Glenn Boyer, 58, who was laid off from the McConway & Torley plant at the end of 2012, was under the impression -- right up to the day the closing was announced -- that he was on a callback list.

Now he is jobless and without health insurance.

"I was making $15.61 when I got laid off, and I was having trouble with that, with the bills," Mr. Boyer said. "I don't know how you're supposed to live anymore."



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