7.1 C
New York

Who’s to Blame for a Factory Shutdown: A Company, or California?


VERNON, Calif. — Teresa Robles begins her shift around dawn most days at a pork processing plant in an industrial corridor 4 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. She spends eight hours on her feet cutting tripe, a repetitive motion that has given her constant joint pain, but additionally a $17.85-an-hour income that supports her family.

So in early June, when whispers began among the many 1,800 staff that the power would soon shut down, Ms. Robles, 57, hoped they were only rumors.

“However it was true,” she said somberly at the top of a recent shift, “and now every day inches slightly closer to my last day.”  

The 436,000-square-foot factory, with roots dating back nearly a century, is scheduled to shut early next 12 months. Its Virginia-based owner, Smithfield Foods, says it can be cheaper to produce the region from factories within the Midwest than to proceed operations here.

“Unfortunately, the escalating costs of doing business in California required this decision,” said Shane Smith, the chief executive of Smithfield, citing utility rates and a voter-approved law regulating how pigs could be housed.

Staff and company officials see a bigger economic lesson in the approaching shutdown. They simply differ on what it’s. To Ms. Robles, it’s evidence that despite years of often perilous work, “we are only disposable to them.” For the meatpacker, it’s a case of politics and regulation trumping commerce.

The associated fee of doing business in California is a longtime point of contention. It was cited last 12 months when Tesla, the electric-vehicle maker that has been a Silicon Valley success story, announced that it was moving its headquarters to Texas. “There’s a limit to how big you’ll be able to scale within the Bay Area,” said Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, mentioning housing prices and long commutes.

As with many economic arguments, this one can tackle a partisan hue.

Across the time of Tesla’s exit, a report by the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University found that California-based corporations were leaving at an accelerating rate. In the primary six months of last 12 months, 74 headquarters relocated from California, in keeping with the report. In 2020, the report found, 62 corporations were known to have relocated.

Dee Dee Myers, a senior adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, counters by pointing to California’s continued economic growth.

“Each time this narrative comes up, it’s consistently disproven by the facts,” said Ms. Myers, director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. The nation’s gross domestic product grew at an annual pace of two percent over a five-year period through 2021, in keeping with Ms. Myers’s office, while California’s grew by 3.7 percent. The state remains to be the country’s tech capital.

Still, manufacturing has declined more rapidly in California than within the nation as an entire. Since 1990, the state has lost a 3rd of its factory jobs — it now has roughly 1.3 million, in keeping with the Bureau of Labor Statistics — compared with a 28 percent decline nationwide.

The Smithfield plant is an icon of California’s industrial heyday. In 1931, Barney and Francis Clougherty, brothers who grew up in Los Angeles and the sons of Irish immigrants, began a meatpacking business that soon settled in Vernon. Their company, later branded as Farmer John, became a household name in Southern California, recognized for producing the beloved Dodger Dog and al pastor that sizzled at backyard cookouts. During World War II, the corporate supplied rations to U.S. troops within the Pacific.

Almost 20 years later, Les Grimes, a Hollywood set painter, was commissioned to create a mural on the plant, transforming a bland industrial structure right into a pastoral landscape where young children chased cherubic-looking pigs. It became a sightseeing destination.

More recently, it has also been a logo of the state’s social and political turbulence.

In explaining Smithfield’s decision to shut the plant, Mr. Smith, the chief executive, and other company officials have pointed to a 2018 statewide ballot measure, Proposition 12, which requires that pork sold within the state come from breeding pigs housed in spaces that allow them to maneuver more freely.

The measure shouldn’t be yet being enforced and faces a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. If it shouldn’t be overturned, the law will apply even to meat packed outside the state — the best way Smithfield now plans to produce the local market — but company officials say that in any case, its passage reflects a climate inhospitable to pork production in California.

Passions have sometimes run high outside the plant as animal rights activists have condemned the confinement and treatment of the pigs being slaughtered inside. Protesters have serenaded and provided water to pigs whose snouts stuck out of slats in arriving trucks.


Aug. 1, 2022, 4:35 p.m. ET

Along with its objections to Proposition 12, Smithfield maintains that the price of utilities is sort of 4 times as high per head to supply pork in California than at the corporate’s 45 other plants across the country, though it declined to say the way it arrived at that estimate.

John Grant, president of the United Food and Industrial Staff Local 770, which represents Ms. Robles and other staff on the plant, said Smithfield announced the closing just as the perimeters were to start negotiating a latest contract.

“A complete gut punch and, frankly, a shock,” said Mr. Grant, who worked on the plant within the Nineteen Seventies. 

He said wage increases were a priority for the union going into negotiations. The corporate has offered a $7,500 bonus to employees who stay through the closing and has raised the hourly wage, previously $19.10 at the highest of the size, to $23.10. (The speed at the corporate’s unionized Midwest plants remains to be a bit higher.)

But Mr. Grant said the factory shutdown was an affront to his members, who toiled through the pandemic as essential staff. Smithfield was fined nearly $60,000 by California regulators in 2020 for failing to take adequate measures to guard staff from contracting coronavirus.

“In spite of everything that the workers have done throughout the pandemic, they’re now all of a sudden going to flee? They’re destroying lives,” said Mr. Grant, adding that the union is working to search out latest jobs for staff and hopes to assist discover a buyer for the plant.

Karen Chapple, a professor of city and regional planning on the University of California, Berkeley, said the closing was an example of “the larger trend of deindustrialization” in areas like Los Angeles. “It probably doesn’t make sense to be here from an efficiency perspective,” she said. “It’s the tail end of an extended exodus.”

Indeed, the variety of food manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles County has declined 6 percent since 2017, in keeping with state data.  

And as those jobs are shed, staff like Ms. Robles wonder what’s going to come next.

Greater than 80 percent of the workers on the Smithfield plant are Latino — a combination of immigrants and first-generation native-born. Most are older than 50. The safety and advantages have kept people of their jobs, union leaders say, but the character of the labor has made it hard to recruit younger staff who’ve higher alternatives.

On a recent overcast morning, the air in Vernon was thick with the smell of ammonia. Staff wearing surgical masks and carrying goggles and helmets walked into the plant. The sound of forklifts hummed beyond a high fence.

Massive warehouses line the streets in the realm. Some sit vacant; others produce wholesale local baked goods and candies.

Ms. Robles began on the Smithfield plant 4 years ago. For greater than 20 years she owned a small business selling produce in downtown Los Angeles. She loved her work, but when her brother died in 2018, she needed money to honor his want to have his body sent from Southern California to Colima, Mexico, their hometown. She sold the business for a few thousand dollars, then began on the factory, making $14 an hour.

“I used to be proud,” she said, recalling the early months at her latest job.

Ms. Robles is the only provider for her family. Her husband has several health complications, including surviving a heart attack in recent months, so she now shoulders the $2,000 mortgage payment for his or her home within the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sometimes her 20-year-old son, who recently began working on the plant, helps with expenses.

“But that is my responsibility — it’s on me to supply,” she said.

Ms. Robles has long recited the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed, and now she often finds herself repeating it throughout the day for strength.

“They’re kicking us out with no answers,” she said.

Other staff, like Mario Melendez, 67, who has worked on the plant for a decade, shares that unmoored feeling.

It’s an honor to know his labor helps feed people across Southern California, he said — especially around the vacations, when the factory’s ribs, ham and hot dogs will probably be part of individuals’s celebrations.

However the factory can also be a spot where he contracted coronavirus, which he passed along to his brother, who died of the virus, as did his mother. He was devastated.

“A terrible shock,” said Mr. Melendez, who says he feels betrayed by the corporate.

So does Leo Velasquez.

He began on the night shift in 1990, making $7 an hour to package and seal bacon. Just a few years later, he moved to days, working 10-hour shifts.

“I’ve given my life to this place,” said Mr. Velasquez, 62.

Over time, his body began to wear down. In 2014, he had shoulder substitute surgery. Still, he had hoped to proceed on the factory until he was able to retire.

“That’s not going to occur,” he said. “Where I’m going from here, I have no idea.”

Get the latest Sports Updates (Soccer, NBA, NFL, Hockey, Racing, etc.) and Breaking News From the United States, United Kingdom, and all around the world.

Related articles


Recent articles