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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Employees at New Era in Derby 'just wish that this wouldn’t end'

Sean Kirst

In all their years of marriage, Candace Bobik had never called her husband, a corrections officer, while he was on the job.

She made that call with some hard news last Tuesday. When a colleague told Don Bobik who it was, he was afraid that someone the couple loved had died.

In a way, he was right.

His wife has worked for 32 years at the New Era Cap Co. plant in Derby. Buffalo-based executives, whose headquarters remains in the city, last week announced plans to close the plant in March and move some jobs to Miami.

The shutdown will affect more than 200 employees who typically produce millions of caps each year, including the ones worn by baseball players in the major leagues.

Candance Bobik operates the machine that does the stitching encircling a cap. Her colleagues speak with admiration of the way Bobik, 50, works at high speed while performing a task that demands relentless skill and concentration.

It is always intense, but she said she takes pride in the product, in the way she makes her living. The workers are paid by piecework, meaning their salary depends on the number of caps they produce.

Teri Buczkowski, president of CWA Local 14177 — which represents rank and file at the plant — said that during its peak years, the plant was turning out “10,000 dozen caps in a week.”

That meant 120,000 caps a week, made in greater Buffalo.

Bobik, secretary of the local, met last week at the CWA union hall in Buffalo with her fellow officers. She and Buczkowski, 58, were joined by Nga Ta, the vice president, and Barnabas Thuan, the treasurer.

They used the word “shock” to describe their response to the shutdown. Last Tuesday, they went to a meeting with management. They feared, at worst, it might involve layoffs or cutbacks.

New Era has an agreement with Major League Baseball to produce its hats within the borders of the United States. Union members believed that pact guaranteed a level of stability at a plant where the average salary is around $17 an hour. Western New York seemed like a natural home for what they do.

Nga, 46, who came to Buffalo as a young woman from Vietnam, said she was among many who wept, stunned, when the company said it would close the entire Derby operation and shift a piece of the work to Miami, amid an ongoing shift toward contracting out production to other manufacturers.

When Nga started, she recalled, she could barely speak any English. One of her co-workers in those years, a woman named Jennifer, befriended Nga and wondered why she was always silent.

Nga explained she was concerned, because of the language barrier, that people might laugh when she talked. Jennifer offered to help, word by word. Nga remembers Jennifer holding up a paycheck and sounding out each syllable, a moment that served as a breakthrough.

“I learned how to speak at New Era,” said Nga, who remains grateful for the way she felt welcome on the floor.

Earlier this year, Gail Zabawa stitched pieces of cut fabric to make the front and back of a New York Mets hat at the New Era factory in Derby. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

On Thursday, around 40 people from her extended family will gather with Nga and her husband for Thanksgiving dinner. While they will try not to worry amid the celebration, Nga said their grown children will probably be wearing New Era caps made by the company that employs their mom and dad.

Their kids joke about their work, but Nga knows the international status of that product makes them proud.

Early each morning, the workers said, the atmosphere at the plant carries the kind of anticipation that almost feels like the moments before a competitive event. Bobik spoke of how she tapes up her hands, attaching a small blade for cutting cloth to one finger, before she leaves her car in the parking lot.

At exactly 7 a.m. a bell rings, and the workers throw themselves into their jobs as the machines start churning. It is a sound that becomes part of you once you grow accustomed to a factory, a heartbeat that slips into the way you move, think and measure time.

Union officers said the notion of family is no exaggeration. Almost everyone who spoke with me had a parent, spouse, grown child or relative who at some point worked at the New Era plant, opened almost 60 years ago. They suggested I contact a married couple, Rob and Mary Jane Thomas Bissell, whose courtship began on the floor.

Rob is from Sunset Bay, Mary Jane from Angola. Rob said “the first time I really had the guts" to talk to his future wife was during a cigarette break, outdoors.

Their earliest connection was built upon their work. Much of their conversation at home involves their lives at the plant.

Like his co-workers, Rob said he roots for baseball teams based mainly on the overall popularity of their hats. If the Yankees win the World Series, he said, sales typically pick up and so does production in Derby.

He said almost everyone in the place cheered for the Los Angeles Dodgers to capture the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. If Boston's win was great news for a passionate "Red Sox Nation," the workers believe the Dodgers would have sold a lot more hats.

While Rob is not especially a baseball fan, he said there is a certain power in seeing the television zero in on the greatest players in the game.

“I watch them,” he said, “and I wonder if maybe I touched the cap the guy is wearing.”

For some, New Era is the only adult job of any duration they have experienced. Bobik started there as a teenager. So did Robin Ferguson, who has been at New Era for 41 years. She took a job at 19, just after the Blizzard of ’77 swept across Western New York.

The closing date for New Era's Derby plant is now set for June 7. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Nga recalls how she was laid off after she was first hired to work for New Era. She was eventually called back to work at a now-shuttered New Era plant in Buffalo before she ended up where she began, in Derby.

It was a relief, she said, because she could again ride to work with her husband. As for Thuan, a fellow refugee who arrived about nine years ago from Burma, he said the plant served for him as an early statement on something beautifully American.

On the job, doing piecework, he saw any success he achieved as a result of his own commitment, of his own discipline and choice.

“You are free,” said Thuan, who remains unsure of what he will do once his job is gone.

He and his friends are older workers in a region where manufacturing jobs are not easy to find. They believed they held jobs at the one place — a homegrown plant making caps for the national pastime — that could transcend the kind of pullouts that so often rock this region.

“I just wish that this wouldn’t end,” Bobik said.

Amid precise, high-speed and often tiring work, the cafeteria was one place where they could take a breath. On opening day of the baseball season, management would set up televisions while employees ate hot dogs and watched a few games.

Once, Buczkowski recalls, the plant received a visit from Hall of Fame pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage. He did a demonstration in the cafeteria, throwing a baseball so hard it made a dent in the wall. Gossage signed his name by that point of impact, and a frame was placed around it as a kind of testament to what they do.

Buczkowski wonders if it will be left behind or painted over, once the plant shuts down.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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