John Morant, a 27-year employee, says, “I liked the pace of work and the camaraderie.” USW (Photo/Steve Dietz)
There’s a ‘For Sale’ sign on a fence in front of a 161-year-old, 172,000 square-foot cluster of factory buildings on a suffering commercial block of Frederick Ave. in West Baltimore.
On this site, for nearly 30 years, stood Maryland Brush Co., the longest-surviving union-organized, worker-owned company in the U.S. The producer of brushes for the steel and rubber industries, studied as an example of worker empowerment, will soon close.
Last year, the company lost its most profitable customer, a major tire producer that used the company’s brushes in its re-treading operations. In November, the managers and union members voted to sell the business to a private firm in Canada, where national health care will lower costs.
“The closing is not a unique story. The 29 previous years is the unique story,” says Deborah Groban Olson, a Michigan attorney and former chair of the National Center for Employee Ownership, who advised the company and has been instrumental in helping establish other worker-owned enterprises and cooperatives.
“The company stood out among the nation’s 7,000 other Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), covering 28 million workers, for its democracy,” said Olson.
“USW employees had one vote per person on shareholder issues and regularly participated in making company decisions.” And, says Olson, worker-owners “showed the desire to seek out and experiment with new products when its old products lost market share.”
Previously owned by PPG, the worker-owned enterprise was established in 1990. Looking back to its founding, Arbutus native and Local 12978 president Richard Benton, says, “We were just hoping for a good seven or eight years.” He began working at Maryland Brush in 1972 on the recommendation of his wife’s grandmother. The company then was making high-quality paintbrushes. He began as an order-filler and then promoted to die setter on the industrial brush operation. “For 18 years, ever since I was hired,” said Benton, “PPG constantly threatened to shut the plant down.”
“I was optimistic, but skeptical [at the start of the ESOP],” said Benton, who said he had a lot of confidence in his local union and its widely trusted president.
Today, interest in employee ownership and cooperatives grows anew as thousands of small businesses across the nation lack family successors to marshal them forward.
Three years before the sale of the plant, I was recommended by the United Steelworkers to serve as a neutral member of Maryland Brush’s board of directors, approved by the plant’s management. Observing how managers and union members have delicately honed their relationship for their mutual benefit has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
Before my retirement, I had served in union office for the better part of 30 years at Bethlehem Steel’s massive 3,200-acre Sparrows Point plant, Md. the largest Steelworker local for hundreds of miles.
In the 1980s, Big Steel’s greed, lack of investment, faulty U.S. trade policy and contentious union-management relationships threatened the survival of similar plants across the country.
I know now how much we could have learned from our brothers and sisters at Maryland Brush, situated 32 miles to our west, just east of the green fields of Mt. St. Joseph High School, a stone’s throw north of St. Agnes Hospital, Baltimore’s first Catholic hospital.
I also realize how our industrial sector could use more leaders like Steve Mullan, Maryland Brush’s president, and CEO, a former PPG senior design engineer. Steve was selected by workers to lead the company a few years after the ESOPs founding, replacing another manager who lacked people skills and belief in employee empowerment that lies in the heart of the enterprise.
Before attending Carnegie-Mellon University, Mullan, a Baltimore resident worked in his family’s machine shop in Baltimore. “I knew we made a good product and could make money,” said Mullan. “But, we recognized that our people were in an uncomfortable position [at the start of the ESOP], never having exercised authority before,” he added. Bargaining unit personnel were encouraged to attend classes in remedial English and math at the local community college on company time. Managers and crewmembers attended numerous sessions on the “team concept” and “lean management.”
Gwen Cascioli, the local’s shop steward, and a board member shared team leadership with Colleen Caldwell, directing the mostly male workforce. “We were friends, not just co-workers. We were there to make the workflow more smoothly between the operators,” said Caldwell, who along with other members, worked four 10-hour shifts, enjoying their weekends off.
“Lean management” had been tried in corporate-owned workplaces. But, plans often failed miserably due to distrust and power imbalances between the parties. At Maryland Brush, they took root in an atmosphere of trust.
Not long before I came on the board, the worker-owners, seeing a decline in the market for their brushes, approved a shareholder-supported venture to diversify into manufacturing a solar-based renewable energy product. The company, which had changed its name to MBC Ventures, had received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for the venture. Managers and workers had poured man-hours and engineering into developing the solar modules that stored and distributed thermal energy. But they couldn’t work out the bugs. The venture failed.
I always marveled at the way workers at Maryland Brush dealt with that setback. Bethlehem Steel had also made investments that went south. Afterward, the blame game was in full force as workers and managers alike slammed the higher-ups for the failures, often implying corrupt intent.
Finger-pointing was absent at Maryland Brush. “That’s not our style,” said Benton. “We made the decision to invest in the venture together. Failure hurts. But our focus was on moving forward, not casting blame.”
Mullan and Sales Vice President Tim Hartman, a Baltimore native, now living in New Jersey, were, for the past couple decades, the company’s only full-time managers. Mullan handled some HR functions, all engineering and all shop floor management, coordinating with shop floor leaders of several self-directed teams. Team members alternated between machines, cutting and twisting filaments purchased from outside vendors, then pressing them between metal stampings to form the brushes.
Hartman, who had risen to sales manager after 17 years at PPG, left for a time to work for a small, private-label brush manufacturer in Pennsylvania’s Poconos, but soon returned to Maryland. “I had wonderful relationships at Maryland Brush,” said Hartman, contrasting the internal cooperation with bruising changes in the hyper-competitive marketplace.
“There was no middle management,” says Don Lamb-Minor, a longtime member of the board of directors who worked for a time as a marketing manager in the plant. “The decisions on whether brushes went out the door were made on the shop floor. The workers were not separated from their work. The fruits of their labor are what they will retire on,” adds Lamb-Minor.
Relationships on the shop floor were forged during the earliest days of the ESOP.
In 1990, to enable Maryland Brush’s sale by PPG, the Steelworkers, under the leadership of District Director David Wilson, former president of Local 2609 at Bethlehem’s Sparrows Point plant, agreed to cut their pay by six percent, reduce vacations and health care benefits. Managers contributed $210,000 to the purchase.
The First National Bank of Maryland provided $3,000,000. The State of Maryland offered $1.5 million and the City of Baltimore issued $110,000 in debt financing. All stock of the company was placed in a trust fund. As loans were re-paid, the stock was distributed to the workers on the basis of hours worked. Efficiencies reduced the size of the workforce on both the managerial and bargaining unit sides.
In 2017, the board and shop floor members sought ways to strengthen the company. The loss of cash in the renewable energy venture was challenging enough. But it was coupled with a continuing struggle to retain steel mill brush customers in a new era where, instead of ordering from longstanding suppliers who understood their needs and provided quality customer service, maintenance managers were going online shopping on price alone.
I tried to help the company’s survival push by composing a press release to local and union media showcasing the American-made, union-made uniqueness of the company. The Steelworkers represented workers in many of the steel mills that used (or could have used) the company’s brushes. A few influential union folks at those mills just might convince their employers to put Maryland Brush’s products on a trial run.
My efforts to market Maryland Brush’s success and its American, union-made brought me closer to some of the folks I had only met once a year in board meetings.
John Morant, a 27-year employee, ran a lathe to finely trim brushes before they were shipped to the customers. An umpire, youth football coach, and ordained minister from Baltimore, Morant told me, “I put love into the brushes.” He said he liked the “pace of work and the camaraderie” and said, “I feel valuable as a worker who owns a piece of the company.”
Joanne Tydings, a Baltimore County resident, had just been hired a couple of years before my interview. She had managed a duckpin bowling center in Glen Burnie, Md. “I really like my job,” Tydings said. I have my hands on a product that goes nationwide and outside the country, too.”
The workers I spoke with weren’t spinning sound bites. They were speaking from the heart.
On Nov. 26, 2019, workers at the annual shareholders meeting ratified the board’s recommendation to sell the business. The tone was somber. But it was coupled with the collective pride of 29 years in the unique labor-management partnership.
“You’ve done one tremendous job—management and labor working together,” Maryland Brush’s Chairman Don Forcino, a retired Steelworker local president and organizer, told shareholders. “I’ve seen other companies where workers had some responsibility for things going wrong. What happened to this company was not your fault.”
After the workers and managers pick up their final shares, after the buildings are sold at auction, 29 years of camaraderie, of laughter and tears, hopes and regrets will be wrapped into a blanket of nostalgia. “I’m happy that most of the workers will be able to begin their retirements [with their accrued shares],” says Benton. He also holds out hope that his co-workers who are too young to retire will have the opportunity to deploy their skills and team-building ethos in new workplaces and careers.
In other towns and cities, new groups of workers and managers will embark on their own journeys of worker-ownership and empowerment, looking to replicate the successes and avoid the pitfalls of those who have pioneered these forms of management.
And, in legislatures across the nation, bills will continue to be introduced by advocates of shop-floor democracy like Deb Olson to help incentivize and incubate the next generation of worker-owned businesses.
Rich Benton, Gwen Cascioli, Steve Mullan, Tim Hartman, Don Lamb-Minor and others will be available to lend these fledgling efforts in worker empowerment some advice and expertise and a little of the love that John Morant proudly put into every one of his brushes.
[Maryland Brush’s development as an ESOP was chronicled in detail in 2013 by three professors at Salisbury University. Their study is available online in a link from Community-Wealth.org, a project of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland].
Len Shindel began working at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant in 1973, where he was a union activist and elected representative in local unions of the United Steelworkers, frequently publishing newsletters about issues confronting his co-workers. His nonfiction and poetry have been published in the “Other Voices” section of the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Pearl, The Mill Hunk Herald, Pig Iron, Labor Notes and other publications. After leaving Sparrows Point in 2002, Shindel, a father of three and grandfather of seven, began working as a communication specialist for an international union based in Washington, D.C. The International Labor Communications Association frequently rewarded his writing. He retired in 2016. Today he and his wife, Maxine, live in Garrett County where he enjoys writing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, hiking, fly-fishing and fighting for a more peaceful, sustainable and safe world for his grandchildren and their generation