NORTH ADAMS — The mayor of North Adams is in a pitched battle with one of his city's largest employers. In a pandemic, no less.
In this interview, Thomas Bernard discusses his handling of Crane Stationery Co.'s move to reopen. The company is operating in defiance of Bernard's request that it prove that all of the work it called employees back to perform May 8 qualifies as "essential."
State law grants him that authority. But Bernard lost ground Thursday when a move to ratify two emergency orders he issued concerning Crane faltered at the Board of Health. After one of the board's three members recused himself, citing a conflict of interest, a motion by Kevin Lamb to ratify the orders failed to be seconded, ending debate. [See companion story.]
Bernard now concedes the city cannot impose $1,000 daily fines against Crane for defying his initial May 3 order. He says he isn't interested in racking up legal costs in a court fight with the company. An emergency order the city's health inspector issued May 10 has been rescinded; Bernard's May 3 order remains in effect.
Bernard said he now plans to focus on clarifying Crane's future in North Adams. On May 1, the mayor received a letter from Crane saying that not only did the company plan to lay off 85 percent of its 229-member workforce June 19, it provided notice of a full shutdown by the end of September.
Bernard says the company told him verbally that letter was sent in error. But on May 4, the mayor challenged the company to make a public statement.
He's still waiting. "Crane's employees and our community deserve candor and transparency from the company," he said.
[The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
QUESTION: What were your first thoughts, when you learned April 29 that Crane Stationery planned to reopen, even as it described plans to cut its workforce in June by 85 percent?
ANSWER: When this news broke, one of the things I did immediately was reach out to the company to ask how we could help them wanting the company to succeed and to continue operations in North Adams. They informed me that they were going to open. I had reservations about that and sought clarification of how they fit within the "essential" services list. I didn't honestly believe they met the standard.
What I'll say with the benefit of some distance and reflection is at that point, what I should have said to the company was "prove it" and you may not open it until you do. What I chose to do instead was to reach out to folks in the state to ask them to help me understand what Crane's position was, which led to the opinion from the Department of Labor Standards.
On the first of May, I also began to hear from employees who were very concerned about being called back to work. I heard from people who were getting mixed messages that they were "essential," that the company was asserting they were essential. But they were also hearing that they were not essential and by no means should they report to work.
There was so much uncertainty. I reached out to Labor Standards and asked them to move on that question expeditiously.
Q: The DLS said May 2 that while aspects of Crane's work did not qualify as "essential," the state would not stop it from filling other orders. At that point, why did you not just let it go?
A: Because I continued to hear concerns from employees that they were not being called back to work on essential work. They were concerned about their health and safety. And at that point, we had seen no health and safety plan. Limitation of contact is a big part of that anyway. If they're calling people in for nonessential work, then that's an increased risk factor regardless of other steps they've put in place. I felt that acting within the scope of the city's responsibility, we needed something greater, which is why I strengthened the order.
Q: You weren't moved by the fact that Mrs. Pence might run out of stationery? [The company noted in an email to the DLS that the vice president's wife, Karen Pence, is a customer.]
A: It's not a question of who the customers are. It's a question of what is the nature of the work that is being done.
Q: In terms of employees, by going back for nonessential work, did they also express to you financial concerns about making less money now received through enhanced unemployment benefits?
A: I think that's a factor. I don't want to speak to what people have disclosed to me, but I think that's certainly one part of it, what they would be eligible for.
Q: Do you think it would be inappropriate to contain the company's operations only to help employees receive more money through such benefits?
A: If that were the only reason, it would be inappropriate.
Q: The company made the point about there being another North Adams printing facility that is operating. What do you say to that "what about that" argument?
A: As I've said to folks at the company, I am not going to engage or indulge in false equivalency theater with them.
Q: Break that down for me. What's false equivalency theater?
A: It's exactly what you said. It's "what about this"? The conditions of other businesses are not relevant to this because there is no universal standard to apply. Every instance is different and trying to equate the operations of a retail store and a manufacturing firm?
There's a great Carl Sandburg quote. He says, "If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell." The company is pounding the table right now.
Q: The point you're making is that you can't equate a retail store with a 200-plus employee manufacturer?
A: It's hard to compare. And I will say that we have had a back-and-forth with Walmart to make sure that their health and safety protocols are as strong as they can be.
Q: Do you think the DLS finding could be characterized as weak on whether nonessential work should occur at Crane? Was that not helpful to the city or to the public?
A: No, I think, it was helpful because it set a parameter. It did point to legitimate concern.
Q: The company, I think, is trying to say, "Hey, wait a minute. That DLS finding should be not a parameter, but the standard."
A: They made reference to [Gov. Charlie] Baker's Executive Order No. 13 saying that clears them, but it doesn't. There's no allowance for Crane in that order or for the kind of business Crane is in.
Q: Crane made a specific argument to the DLS that law firms and medical professionals use their products to memorialize their records on paper. Do you feel that's a stretch?
A: I do feel it's a stretch. But again, I was the one who asked for the opinion and I'm willing to accept that fairly narrow interpretation of essential.
Q: You weren't able Thursday to have the health board ratify the conditions you set May 3 on Crane's reopening, or the health inspector's May 10 "emergency order to correct," which imposed fines. Is that a temporary setback or does it weaken the city's legal position going forward?
A: The Board of Health's failure to act on a legal Emergency Order to Correct prevents the city from assessing and enforcing fines against the company and from taking other corrective action.
I'm deeply disappointed in the board's lack of action to ratify a legal and legitimate order to fully protect Crane Stationery's employees, and to uphold the authority of the city - and the mayor as the city's chief executive - during this unprecedented public health emergency.
I have grave concerns about the manner in which the item before the board was resolved — essentially giving the company a pass by refusing to take action on a matter where the city's authority to act was clearly presented and acknowledged by the board — and affirmed in The Berkshire Eagle's reporting on this matter.
Their failure to act limits the city's ability to protect employee and community health and safety.
While my May 3 order remains in effect, I don't intent to expend further city resources in pursing judicial enforcement. Regardless of the board's lack of action, I expect the city health department to remain vigilant in protecting the health and safety of Crane employees and our entire community.
Q: What has this conflict taught you about your job?
A: I would say that the last eight to 10 weeks has been a learning experience for everybody in a municipal leadership position. You know, the operation of the state of emergency and the whole issue of what does or doesn't constitute an essential business certainly wasn't something that in January or February was on the radar screen. I am learning and trying to make the best judgments I can through this.
In my approach to leadership, I try to be collaborative. I try to be business-friendly. That's one of the reasons I also very concerned that we still have not gotten clear answers from the company about what their plans actually are. Who their employees are that they see as having a future with the company — and for how long. These are all related and parallel issues. It does inform my decision-making.
Q: Have you taken guidance from experiences in other cities?
A: Guidance in the sense that it's clear that as municipalities, we do have latitude — and most of that latitude comes from being more restrictive than what we get from the state. We're more constrained if we wanted to show greater leniency, but we do have the authority to be stronger in our actions.
Q: You mentioned that you try to be collaborative and business-friendly. Have you heard from anyone who thinks you're taking steps that are a threat to a local business?
A: No, not locally. The people I've heard from in the community have been positive. This is why this process is helpful. It's important that we educate the community about what the fundamental issue is. The employees of Crane are facing so much uncertainty right now that they just want clear answers.
Part of the effort of ensuring that Crane restricts itself to essential business is trying to provide some of that clarity, at a time when that's hard to be found.
Q: You mentioned that with time and hindsight, you might have told the company to prove earlier it is doing essential work. Have you revisited your request May 4 to the company — so far unanswered — that it disclose publicly what its plans are? That did seem to ratchet up what could be seen as an oppositional stance by the city. Was that tactically a mistake?
A: No, I don't believe it was. I believe that once Crane provided that information [about terminating all employees by Sept. 30], even having recanted it, it was incumbent upon me to share that. It was a further piece of information that contradicted previous information [from Crane].
I have to consider the impact. Had I had that information at the end of April and, come August, Crane had said, "Oh, by the way, we never planned to stay back past September, and we informed the mayor of that at the end of April."
That would have been irresponsible of me. It would have been a dereliction of my duty of care to this community.
Q: Have you gotten any direction from the state asking you to compromise on this?
Q: Do you feel you may be blamed by Crane if it does decide to leave North Adams?
A: I think that is possible. This is why I am so concerned about what has been coming out. You know, the first message said that they were pulling up stakes completely. The second was "No, we're retaining workers." The third was, "Well, we're retaining for a certain period of time."
It's unfortunate that this is all happening in the context of a public health and economic crisis unlike anything we've seen. That may give them the latitude to blame me. However, again, my first instinct when I heard about this letter [about job losses] was to reach out to local and state partners and stakeholders. And to reach out to the company to say, "We have an opportunity here. What can we do to help? What can we do to help the employees? What can we do to help the company succeed to remain in North Adams?"
I still want to see Crane succeed. I want to see the Crane brand be part of the fabric of North Adams. I wanted to see as many Crane employees as possible taken care of and treated fairly by the company.
But, you know, can you take a piece of equipment, put it on a truck, drop it off at another factory, and print the Crane brand on it? Absolutely. I hope that doesn't happen. But right now, the future of Crane and North Adams is in question. And the folks who are able to provide the answers have chosen not to up to this point.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.