Monday, June 21, 2004

Mexico shirt mill upsets agents

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staf f writer

Rich Pierce, a Tampa-based agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, remembers fondly the days that his uniform shirts were made by Fechheimer Brothers, a Blue Ash company that's the nation's largest maker of government employee uniforms.

So he thought it was a bad joke when he opened a bag of uniforms last month and found a label that said, "Made in Mexico."

Bad enough that American jobs were being sent overseas, he said. But the security implications of having Border Patrol uniforms made on the other side of the border were stupefying.

"If they're being made in Mexico, we don't know who has control over them, or even how many are being made," said Pierce, who is also executive vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing 10,000 agents. "Someone crossing the border in a Border Patrol uniform isn't going to draw any extra scrutiny from us, that's for sure... "

It's happening because VF Solutions, a Nashville company with a $30 million annual contract to equip 30,000 Border Patrol and Customs Service agents, has decided to subcontract its production to Mexico, federal officials said.

The outsourcing flap was first reported by the Arizona Republic, which quoted U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.

"Hollywood couldn't make up satire like this. But it isn't a laughing matter," said Hayworth, who was a WLWT (Channel 5) sports anchor in the 1980s. "This is another classic, boneheaded bureaucratic Washington move."

Fechheimer, a Berkshire Hathaway-owned company with 130 employees in Blue Ash and 1,300 at unionized garment factories nationally, used to be the sole supplier of the uniforms under its Flying Cross brand. That ended in the 1980s, when the Border Patrol switched from a cash uniform allowance to a reimbursement system.

James Mitchie, a spokesman for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said the bureau had "no knowledge whatsoever" about breaches to security by Mexican subcontractors and said he hasn't heard any complaints from agents.

"Our Border Patrol agents and officers are proud of their uniforms," he said. "Those uniforms with the Border Patrol have been around for decades, and I don't think they'd want to wear anything else."

He said outsourcing is "not extraordinary" and has been going on for decades.

That's just the point, said John Marrone, political director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099. The local represents 22 tailors who make dress uniforms at Fechheimer's Blue Ash shop.

"Given the Bush administration, it's not a surprise, because their emphasis certainly has not been on job creation in this country. Why would the U.S. government use taxpayer dollars to purchase something overseas they could get - at high quality and a decent price - right here in Cincinnati?"

Indeed, unions and other Democrats are making the uniforms a campaign issue.

"It is unclear how outsourcing any portion of our homeland security plan, especially a part that is integral to the identification of our Border Patrol, facilitates border security," said Jano Cabrera, Democratic National Committee spokesman.

U.S. Rep Rob Portman, the Bush campaign's Ohio spokesman, wouldn't debate the outsourcing issue, but did stick up for a company in his district.

"This is crazy," the Terrace Park Republican said in a statement. "These uniforms should be made in the United States of America. Our Cincinnati company should never have lost the contract."

Fechheimer said the Border Patrol was just the latest example of a decades-long fight to keep American jobs. "There's a genuine issue about whether apparel worn by government personnel ought to be made in America," said senior vice president Fred Heldman. "Fechheimer still offers the 'Made in the United States' option. We think that's a very important option."

It's important to agents like Pierce, who said the foreign-made shirts are costing taxpayers in the long run.

"I've got (Fechheimer) shirts that I bought when I came into the Border Patrol 26 years ago. I still have them. They're just a higher quality shirt," he said. "These new things don't last at all. If you bought them at a department store somewhere, you'd take them back."



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