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Workers at M. Wile & Co. approved a contract extension Tuesday that safeguards 308 jobs at the company's suit-sewing plant on Goodell Street.

The deal extends an agreement with the needletrades union first signed in 1996, when the import-battered company considered closing the plant.

"To the workers here, having the job is more important than increasing the wage rate," said Luis Madera, business agent of UNITE Western New York Joint Board.

Workers voted by a 3-to-1 ratio to extend the agreement, foregoing annual 25-cent wage increases in the union's national agreement.

The contract extension for the Goodell Street factory provides a 2.5 percent wage increase in April 1999 and a small bonus at the end of 2000, Madera said.

The average wage is about $8 an hour, although piecework rates can swing actual paychecks well above or below the average.

"Because of our strong belief in the product we produce here, we wanted to give people some assurance," said Steven Weiner, group president for Hartmarx Corp., which owns M. Wile.

The extension guarantees that the 308 workers who worked at the plant in 1996 will still have a job through April 2001, Madera said. The current agreement was set to expire next year.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the company is willing to shut down one of two plants . . .if this package had been turned down," Madera said. Hartmarx operates plants around the U.S. and in Mexico.

About 400 people work at the Goodell Street plant, sewing men's suits from material cut at another M. Wile site on Elmwood Avenue.

The company has been battered by imports, as a loophole in NAFTA allows the wool used in Canadian suits to bypass U.S. import duties.

"Our people are always in jeopardy because of that," Weiner said.

However, lawmakers have introduced a proposal to cut the tariff on suit-grade wool, which would close the NAFTA loophole.

In addition, M. Wile has embarked on a strategy to make higher-end suits in Buffalo, a move that could insulate the company from heated competition in the medium-priced market.

The company is aiming at the market for suits that retail for $400 and up, instead of the $300 range, Weiner said.

Purchased by Chicago-based Hartmarx Corp. in 1969, M. Wile makes suits under the Kenneth Cole, Society Brand, Perry Ellis and Pierre Cardin labels.

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