Chris Koch’s photo hangs on the Wall of Fame in the Lake Shore Central School District.
But these days, there are many in this community south of Buffalo who look at Koch as a local boy who made good, but has gone very bad.
How else to describe a man who is likely putting more than 200 people out of work in Derby, the very community in which he grew up?
Koch is the president and CEO of New Era Cap, one of the world’s most successful headwear corporations. With annual sales of more than $750 million, New Era boasts partnerships with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and NASCAR.
Yet despite the success, the corporation is set to close its Derby manufacturing plant in March, laying off more than 200 people — including some 192 members of the Communication Workers of America Local 14177.
“They were given a huge tax cut, but sadly, they have decided not to invest that back in their workers or their community,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, who stood with scores of Western New York unionists and pro-labor activists Saturday in front of New Era Field, the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills that now bears the company’s name.
“These are good people,” said the Buffalo congressman, “who want nothing more at the end of the day than to go to work… and provide for their family. (New Era) has an obligation to invest in these people.”
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The plant in Derby has been in operation since the 1960s, although the company has roots in the community dating back to the 1920s. That history, said Michele Amoia of the Lake Shore Central School Teachers’ Association, serves as a tremendous sense of hometown pride in Derby. New Era may be a global brand, she said, but those hats “are homemade.”
Francis Pordum, a former state assemblymember who represented Derby, said he has been disappointed by Koch’s unwillingness to reconsider the plant closure, adding the New Era head is motivated only by profit.
“We need corporate heads who have decency and who care about their community,” Pordum said. “Now, companies base their decisions on what they can take immediately, and what they quickly gain.”
'Change the name of this stadium to Union Busting Field'
West Seneca Teachers Association President Joe Cantafio said when Terry and Kim Pegula stepped in and took ownership of the Buffalo Bills, they did so to protect “the home team” at a time when the NFL franchise was in danger of being relocated to a new city. As he stood Saturday in front of New Era Field, Cantafio said the “home team” that needs to be saved now is made up of New Era workers, whose very livelihoods are at stake.
“Shame on New Era,” said Rev. Kirk Laubenstein, executive director for the Coalition of Economic Justice. “They should change the name of this stadium to 'Union Busting Field'.”
It’s the fourth quarter and time’s running out on the workers in Derby. There’s still time for Chris Koch to call an audible. If he doesn’t, he will be putting more than 200 people in his own hometown on the unemployment line.
And if that happens, said Democratic Assemblyman Sean Ryan of Buffalo, “then you better take his photo off that Wall of Fame.”