Skip to Content

Bolton Metal closure marks end of an era

Photo by Doug Bauman

Jim Strunk, treasurer of UAW 1282, will soon have to part ways with the union hall that UAW has called home since the 1970s. The union lost nearly all of its remaining 230 members to recent layoffs at Bolton Metal Products, formerly Cerro, which used to employ more than 1,400 people in Bellefonte.

Bolton Metal closure marks end of an era
by Ben Brewer

The darkened entrance of the 1970s-style building off Blanchard Street in Bellefonte smells of stale disinfectant. On the back wall of the gymnasium-size meeting room hangs a painting by a United Auto Workers member depicting wars in which members have served. Behind the dais where union officers used to sit hang the framed charters of the UAW, the AFL-CIO and other unions that once used the hall.

For more than 30 years, hundreds of workers debated and voted on contract proposals in that room. On weekends, their families danced and held formal dinners to honor community leaders.

At the end of the hallway is Jim Strunk’s modest office. The union treasurer is surrounded by boxes of records dating to 1957, file cabinets and bookshelves. Against one wall leans a massive brass plaque naming hundreds of union workers who served and died in World War II.  

Strunk checks his records. Nine people still working at Bolton Metal Products. Down from 147 after the first of the year. Down from 232 in 2007 … and down from 1,400 in the 1970s.

On Feb. 1, the company announced that most of the remaining workers would be jobless within months, joining their counterparts at Corning, Murata and plants across the nation. The Bellefonte facility, seven years shy of its 100th birthday, would be disassembled, the equipment sold to a plant in Ohio, the scrap metal sent to England.

Bolton, formerly Cerro Metal Products, and before that Titan Metal Manufacturing, would no longer make the brass rod, wire and low-melt alloys it had for decades. The factory that had operated since 1915 would be shuttered.

Despite the decline of U.S. manufacturing and tough times at Cerro, hopes were high when United Kingdom–based Bolton MKM took over the facility last year with plans to implement a new business model to streamline operations and expand into new markets.

“I felt that Bolton coming in here would be our savior,” Strunk said. “I hoped we would all have decent jobs and be able to work until we decided to retire.”

According to Strunk and UAW Local 1282 President Joe Galbraith, the plant was making money for Bolton. Not only had the company paid workers a production bonus shortly before the closure announcement, but workers had agreed to a $2 per hour pay cut in their last contract to help keep the plant viable.
“Everyone on the management side said the model was working,” Galbraith said. “No one was more shocked than me when they called me in and dumped it on me.”
“That was a real rip-off as far as I’m concerned,” said Strunk. “[Bolton owner Martyn Meade] used us for a year, and then he dumped us.”

It was a lesson hard-learned since the day a year earlier when Strunk first met company president John Hussa.

“I said, ‘Thanks for taking a chance on us. Tell your boss that we appreciate it, because I think we’d have been down the tubes without you buying us out,’” Strunk explained.

“His response was, ‘We’re not here to take a chance. We’re here to make it go.’”

“I was always taught that kind of guy’s a liar.”

Hussa could not be reached for comment, but in a Centre Daily Times article on the layoff of 80 Bolton workers, published less than three months before Bolton closed, he said, “I absolutely see a future, and I believe this new move basically is the security for the plant.”

Engineering and maintenance manager Bob Kersavage claimed Bolton could not overcome weak market conditions and rising raw material prices.

“We tried to give it our best effort,” Kersavage said. “But business conditions in general across the United States were tough, especially in housing and automotive, our two main outlets.”

Others said market conditions had little to do with it.
“Their interest in buying the facility was to close it down,” Centre County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jon Eich said bluntly. He believes Bolton bought the facility to put a competitor out of business and reduce the supply in the brass rod and wire markets, he said.
Bellefonte Mayor Stanley Goldman said Bolton bought Cerro to make a quick buck.

“I thought Bolton bought this business to build it up,” Goldman said. “But it’s obvious that they bought it to go out of business. They own other businesses, and this probably was a competitor of their other businesses.”

The meager severance package added insult to injury. Bolton gave workers the option of a one-time payment of $1,300 or two months’ health insurance, and that only after Galbraith held company officials over a barrel on a technicality in the plant closure notice.

“It stinks,” Strunk said of the severance. “It comes to $37 and some for each year I worked here.” 

Strunk’s father retired from Cerro after 33 years. Strunk, with 36 years at the plant, won’t get that chance. At 58, he’ll have to find another job to help his youngest daughter through college. But the pickings are slim.

“I don’t think there are any super jobs out there,” he said. He wants to apply his treasurer skills, but the cards are stacked against him. “I’ve done all the books, payroll and taxes for the union with no mistakes for 12 years, but who’s going to hire a guy who’s been working for a union?”

The North American Free Trade Agreement provides for education funds for workers unemployed due to foreign competition, but the workers’ first application was turned down. The union is appealing the decision, Galbraith said.

Meanwhile, men in their 50s are scrambling. Some have found jobs at Penn State and others with local government. Some hope to start their own businesses, a tough go, especially during a recession. Most are trying to patch together a living until their Social Security and union pensions come through.

Just as it’s done for plant closings before this, Career Link is helping connect laid-off workers with retraining programs, health benefits and other support services, but Sally Kolesar of Career Link said the first challenge is getting workers over the initial shock.

“Part of it is convincing these fellows that there is life beyond brass and that they can be a part of it,” Kolesar said. “Losing your job is a very traumatic experience, especially after you’ve been there for a long time. You lost not only income, but the dream of secure retirement. You lost your friends you’ve worked with for 30 or 40 years, familiar faces, your routine.”

The plant closure translates into about a quarter of a million dollars per year in lost taxes. Bolton paid more than $100,000 in annual property taxes. The 232 workers at the plant were contributing nearly $150,000 per year in local income taxes, according to Voices estimates.

Also lost is the money that Bolton and the workers spent in the community, Goldman said.

“It is a catastrophe for Bellefonte,” he said of the closure.

Yet union leaders said that aside from state Rep. Mike Hanna, elected officials haven’t responded.
“Some of them showed up the day the plant closed at the union hall, saying, ‘We’ll do everything we can for you,’ and we haven’t heard a word since then,” Galbraith said.
But state Sen. Jake Corman told Voices he’s optimistic. By keeping taxes low and improving infrastructure, he said the county can draw more manufacturing. Yet tax money is what funds infrastructure, and the county now has less of it.

“We need to make this area attractive to businesses so they’ll locate here and grow here,”
 he said. “With the right product, manufacturing can succeed.”
The Bolton workers can’t wait until that day. Their families have to eat and their children finish college so they can have a chance at a more secure life.

And the union hall that has been their home base for decades has already been sold … to a dentist. 

Jim Strunk and others still seethe.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind wants to get rid of their home. That’s our union home. That was our place.”

Dr. Radut | page