Who is to blame for a factory closing: a company or California?

VERNON, Calif. — Teresa Robles starts her shift at dawn most days at a pork processing plant in an industrial corridor four miles south of downtown Los Angeles. She spends eight hours on her feet cutting calluses, a repetitive motion that has caused constant pain in her joints, but also an income of $17.85 an hour that she supports her family.

So in early June, when whispers began among the 1,800 workers that the facility would close soon, Ms. Robles, 57, hoped it was just rumours.

“But it was true,” he said grimly at the end of a recent shift, “and now each day is a little closer to my last day.”

The 436,000-square-foot factory, with roots dating back nearly a century, will close early next year. Its Virginia-based owner, Smithfield Foods, says it will be cheaper to supply the region from factories in the Midwest than to continue operations here.

“Unfortunately, the rising costs of doing business in California necessitated this decision,” said Smithfield CEO Shane Smith, citing utility rates and a voter-approved law regulating how hogs can be housed.

Workers and company officials see a bigger economic lesson in the impending closure. They just differ in what is. For Ms. Robles, it is evidence that, despite years of often dangerous work, “we are disposable for them”. For the meat packer, it’s a case of policy and regulation trumping commerce.

The cost of doing business in California has long been a point of contention. It was cited last year when Tesla, the electric vehicle maker that has been a Silicon Valley success story, announced it was moving its headquarters to Texas. “There’s a limit to how big you can go in the Bay Area,” said Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, citing house prices and long commutes.

As with many economic arguments, this one can take on a partisan undertone.

Around the time of Tesla’s departure, a report from the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University found that California-based companies were leaving at a fast pace. In the first six months of last year, 74 headquarters moved from California, according to the report. In 2020, according to the report, 62 companies were known to have relocated.

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

“Every time this narrative comes up, it’s constantly refuted 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 a 2 percent annual rate over a five-year period through 2021, according to Ms. Myers’ office, while California’s grew 3.7 percent. The state remains the technological capital of the country.

Still, manufacturing has declined faster in California than in the nation as a whole. Since 1990, the state has lost a third of its factory jobs (it now has about 1.3 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), compared to 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, started a meatpacking business that soon settled in Vernon. His company, later named Farmer John, became a household name in Southern California, renowned for producing the beloved Dodger Dog and the sizzling shepherd at backyard cookouts. During World War II, the company supplied rations to US troops in the Pacific.

Nearly 20 years later, Les Grimes, a Hollywood set painter, was commissioned to create a mural at the plant, transforming a nondescript industrial structure into a pastoral landscape where little boys chased cherub-like pigs. It became a tourist destination.

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

Explaining Smithfield’s decision to close the plant, Mr. Smith, the CEO and other company officials pointed to a 2018 state ballot measure, Proposition 12, which requires pork sold in the state to come from breeding pigs housed in spaces that allow them to move more freely.

The measure is not yet enforced and faces a challenge before the US Supreme Court this fall. If not overturned, the law will apply even to out-of-state-packed meat, the way Smithfield now plans to supply the local market, but company officials say its passage in any case reflects an inhospitable climate for pork production in California.

At times, passions have run high outside the plant, as animal rights activists have condemned the confinement and treatment of pigs that are slaughtered inside. Protesters serenaded and provided water to pigs whose snouts protruded from the slats of arriving trucks.

In addition to its objections to Proposition 12, Smithfield contends that the cost of utilities is almost four times higher per head to produce pork in California than it is at the company’s other 45 plants across the country, though it denied. to say how he arrived at that figure. estimate.

John Grant, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents Ms. Robles and other workers at the plant, said Smithfield announced the closure just as the parties were to begin negotiating a new contract.

“A total punch to the stomach and quite frankly a shock,” said Grant, who worked at the plant in the 1970s.

He said wage increases were a priority for the union as negotiations began. The company has offered a $7,500 bonus to employees who stay until the closing and has increased the hourly wage, which was previously $19.10 at the top of the scale, to $23.10. (The rate at the company’s unionized Midwest plants is still slightly higher.)

But Grant said closing the factory was an affront to its members, who have worked hard during the pandemic as essential workers. Smithfield was fined nearly $60,000 by California regulators in 2020 for failing to take adequate steps to protect workers from contracting coronavirus.

“After everything employees have done during the pandemic, now they are suddenly going to flee? They are destroying lives,” Mr. Grant said, adding that the union is working to find new jobs for the workers and hopes to help find a buyer for the plant.

Karen Chapple, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, said the closure was an example of “the broader trend of deindustrialization” in areas like Los Angeles. “It probably doesn’t make sense to be here from an efficiency perspective,” she said. “It is the end of a long exodus.”

In fact, the number of food manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles County is down 6 percent since 2017, according to state data.

And as those jobs are eliminated, workers like Ms. Robles are wondering what comes next.

More than 80 percent of the Smithfield plant’s employees are Latino, a mix of immigrants and first-generation natives. Most are over 50 years old. Security and benefits have kept people in their jobs, union leaders say, but the nature of the work has made it difficult to recruit younger workers who have better alternatives.

On a recent cloudy morning, the air in Vernon was thick with the smell of ammonia. Workers wearing surgical masks and goggles and hard hats entered the plant. The sound of forklift trucks hummed past a tall fence.

Department stores line the streets of the area. Some sit vacant; others produce wholesale local baked goods and sweets.

Ms. Robles started at the Smithfield plant four years ago. For more than two decades, she owned a small produce business in downtown Los Angeles. She loved her work, but when her brother died in 2018, she needed money to honor her wish that her body be shipped from Southern California to Colima, Mexico, her hometown. She sold the business for a couple of thousand dollars, then started in the factory, earning $14 an hour.

“I was proud,” she said, looking back on the first few months at her new job.

Mrs. Robles is the sole provider for her family. Her husband has several health complications, including surviving a heart attack in recent months, so she is now shouldering the $2,000 mortgage payment on her house in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sometimes her 20-year-old son, who recently started working at the plant, helps with expenses.

“But this is my responsibility, it is on me to provide,” he said.

Mrs. Robles has long recited the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed, and now often finds herself repeating it throughout the day to strengthen herself.

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

Other workers, like Mario Meléndez, 67, who has worked at the plant for a decade, share that feeling of heartbreak.

It’s an honor to know that his work helps feed people throughout Southern California, he said, especially during the holidays, when the factory’s ribs, ham and hot dogs will be part of people’s celebrations.

But the factory is also a place where he contracted coronavirus, which he passed on to his brother, who died of the virus, as did his mother. He was devastated.

“A terrible shock,” said Meléndez, who says he feels betrayed by the company.

Also Leo Velasquez.

He started the night shift in 1990, earning $7 an hour to pack and seal bacon. A few years later, she moved on to days, working 10-hour shifts.

“I have given my life to this place,” said Velasquez, 62.

Over the years, his body began to wear down. In 2014, she underwent shoulder replacement surgery. Still, he hoped to continue at the factory until he was ready to retire.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Where do I go from here, I don’t know.”

Leave a Comment