Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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The fading of a fixture


'Call it Mexican Standard or Chinese Standard,' says Jerri Haver, vice president of the union at the factory in Tiffin. The company's name is a combination of two predecessors, Standard Sanitary Manufacturing and American Radiator. Former plant worker Ryan Smith, who bought a nearby bar last year, expects his business to suffer.

Allan Detrich Enlarge

TIFFIN - For nearly 60 years, it has been a U.S. business icon making products associated with function and comfort. But when layoffs and production changes are completed at a factory here, American Standard Cos. Inc. will be a little less American.

The firm's only remaining U.S. plant making ceramic bathroom and kitchen fixtures is ending production of most of its current products and shifting the work to factories in Mexico and Asia.

"Chances are it won't be made in America," lamented union leader Jerri Haver, who represents the 115-year-old factory's 350 hourly workers. "Call it Mexican Standard or Chinese Standard or whatever you want to call it."

When the changes are completed, a long list of products made at the Tiffin plant will be reduced to just three: residential toilet tanks, toilet bowls, and pedestal sinks. Other residential products and remaining production of commercial restroom fixtures Americans encounter every day is headed abroad like Levi Strauss jeans, Fruit of the Loom underwear, and other well-known American names.

To be fair, American Standard's headquarters will remain in the United States in Piscataway, N.J.

The company will continue to produce air-conditioning equipment at 11 U.S. plants and a different type of bathroom fixture at a 12th U.S. factory in Salem, Ohio.

In this Seneca County city, which first began producing bathroom fixtures in 1913 for the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Co., the changes are a personal hardship for the 210 employees who either were nudged into retirement or face loss of their livelihoods.

"It isn't looking good now," said 29-year-old Paul Pryor, who started at the plant a decade ago but doubts that he'll ever be recalled after being let go in an earlier round of layoffs late last year. He plans to study welding at a nearby community college.

Crystal Conley, a bartender at a tavern popular with American Standard workers, worries about how she and her husband, David, will provide health insurance for their family when he loses his job June 11 after 18 years.

"It's a concern, especially when you have three children," said Mrs. Conley, who will face decisions on health insurance in three months when company-provided coverage expires.

Lisa Glover, an American Standard spokesman, flatly denied worker contentions that the layoffs and production changes are in retaliation for a still-pending labor dispute. Local 7-A of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers says more than $3 million in back wages is owed to employees.

"One has nothing to do with the other," she said.

"We needed to operate more efficiently. We are a global company. We manufacture in 28 countries. We use our manufacturing resources to best advantage for our customers and our business.

"The important thing is that our quality is consistent no matter where we produce our products."

A workforce that totaled 725 two years ago will be cut to about 150, with most of the layoffs effective June 11, according to workers.

While workers and community residents complain that many products most closely identified with American Standard will no longer be made in the United States, the company's spokesman points out that three Mexican plants producing ceramic fixtures are in "the Americas."

One upshot of the production shift is that displaced workers will be eligible for re-training funds under federal trade readjustment programs.

Hourly wages at the plant average about $17. As recently as 2002, some workers commonly made $25 and even $30 under a piece-work system in which part of pay was determined by output.

The American Standard spokesman said wages were only one factor in the company's decision. The age of the plant was another. "There are disadvantages to operating in a plant of that age," Ms. Glover said, citing production lines that are spread over two floors.

The red-brick factory is in an aging industrial sector on the north end of this 18,000-resident city. Portions were built in 1889 by the Great Western Pottery Co., which sold the complex to Standard Sanitary Manufacturing in 1913.

That firm merged in 1929 with a home-heating firm, American Radiator Co. The combined firm adopted the American Standard name in the late 1940s, according to a history on the firm's Web site. American Standard grew into one of the nation's top producers of kitchen and bath fixtures. Today, it is an $8.6 billion-a-year firm with 60,000 employees that also produces air conditioners and auto parts.

About half of the firm's sales are from outside the United States, according to federal securities filings.

Employees aren't the only Tiffin residents concerned about the impact of the factory cuts.

Ryan Smith opened a bar near the plant, called Smitty's Avenue Tavern, a year ago. "I'm sure I'm going to take a hit. I don't know how much," said the 32-year-old. He and his wife are both former American Standard workers. He was laid off in December; she went in an earlier round of cuts. Many laid-off colleagues continue to frequent the bar. "They still come in, but they don't come in as much," Mr. Smith noted.

At city hall, Finance Director Larry Clausing said he expects the cuts to reduce receipts from the city's 1.75 percent income tax by about $75,000 in 2004. If all the changes are carried out at the plant, the $6.8 million brought in by the tax likely will drop by 3 to 5 percent, he said. That will further eat into a budget surplus, which fell to $500,000 in December from $1.3 million in January.

Property taxes collected by Seneca County on the firm's land and buildings likely won't be affected, said county Auditor Larry Beidelschies.

Less clear is any impact on American Standard's personal property tax payments, which are determined by the value of its machinery and inventory. The tax won't be re-calculated until December for 2005. But this year, the firm will pay $254,000, about 70 percent of which will go to schools, the auditor noted.

Boosters point out that the community has received some good news recently. A Toledo auto-parts supplier is relocating a factory and its workers here from Carey, Ohio, and a Japanese auto-parts manufacturer is expanding.

Still, Seneca County lost 1,500 jobs, or 5 percent of its workforce, between 1994 and 2003. At 7 percent in April, the county unemployment rate was down from March's 7.8 percent but still above state and national averages, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Bernard Hohman, Tiffin mayor, is troubled by the job losses at American Standard.

"It has a direct impact on income tax receipts and the buying power of the people affected," he said. "There was nothing we were asked to do, that was suggested, or that we could think of that would have made any difference to the people at company headquarters in New Jersey," he said. "They wanted to change the emphasis of this plant."

American Standard officials said they do not plan additional cuts, but workers aren't so sure.

"It's a dying plant," said Bruce Amory, who is being laid off after 15 years. He plans to pursue a medical profession. "If possible, I don't plan on going back into a factory setting," said the 35-year-old. "American Standard used to be a great company to work for. It was a premier employer in Tiffin. But it's not a nice company to work for anymore."

A number of workers have said they plan to become nurses or truck drivers, said Mr. Haver, the union representative who is vice president of Local 7-A of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers. He is circumspect about the plant's future.

"Some days, I think we're doomed," he said. "But when you sit and talk to people from the company, they talk about the future. It's like they have plans for this place."

Contact Gary Pakulski at: or 419-724-6082.

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