… Farmer John, became a household name in Southern California, recognized for producing the lovable Dodger Dog and the pastor who sizzled in
backyard cooking. During World War II, the company supplied American forces in the Pacific with rations…
Who is Responsible for Factory Closing: The California Mother Corporation?
August 1, 2022
VERNON, CA — Teresa Robles starts her dawn shift most days at a pork processing plant in an industrial lane four miles south of downtown Los Angeles. She spends eight hours on her feet cutting tripe, a repetitive motion that causes her constant joint pain, but she also spends an income of $17.85 an hour to support her family.
So in early June, as whispers began among 1,800 workers that the facility would soon close, Ms. Robles, 57, hoped it was just rumours.
But that was true, and now every day approaches my last, she said wistfully at the end of a recent shift.
The 436,000-square-foot plant, with its roots dating back nearly a century, is due to close early next year. Owner Smithfield Foods, based in Virginia, says it would be cheaper to supply the area from factories in the Midwest than to continue operations here.
“Unfortunately, the escalating costs of doing business in California required this decision,” Smithfield CEO Shane Smith said, citing utility rates and a voter-approved law regulating how pigs are housed.
Workers and company officials see a larger economic lesson in the impending shutdown. They just differ as to what it is. For Ms. Robles, this is proof that despite years of often perilous work, “we’re only at their fingertips.” For meatpacking companies, it’s about policy and regulation that trumps commerce.
The cost of doing business in California is a long-standing point of contention. It was cited last year when Tesla, the maker of electric cars that was a success story in Silicon Valley, It has announced that it will move its headquarters to Texas. “There is a limit to how wide you can get in the Bay Area,” said Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, referring to housing prices and long-haul commutes.
As with many economic arguments, this one can take on a partisan hue.
Around the time of Tesla’s exit, a report from the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University found that California-based companies were leaving at an accelerating rate. In the first six months of last year, 74 headquarters were moved out of California, according to the report. The report found that in 2020, 62 companies were known to have relocated.
Dee de Myers, a senior adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, disagreed by pointing to California’s continued economic growth.
“Every time this narrative emerges, it is 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 an annual rate of 2 percent over the five years through 2021, according to Ms. Myers’ office, while California’s GDP grew by 3.7 percent. The country is still the technology capital of the country.
However, manufacturing has declined more rapidly in California than in the state as a whole. Since 1990, the state has lost a third of its factory jobs — it now has nearly 1.3 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — compared to a 28 percent drop nationwide.
The Smithfield plant is a symbol of California’s industry heyday. In 1931, brothers Barney and Frances Clogerti, who were raised in Los Angeles and the children of Irish immigrants, started a meatpacking business that soon settled in Vernon. Their company, later named Farmer John, became a household name in Southern California, recognized for producing the lovable Dodger Dog and the pastor who sizzled in backyard cooking. During World War II, the company supplied American forces in the Pacific with rations.
Nearly 20 years later, Les Grimes, a Hollywood painter, was commissioned to create a mural in the factory, transforming a cute industrial structure into a pastoral landscape where young children chased angelic-looking pigs. It has become a sightseeing destination.
More recently, it has also been a symbol of the state’s social and political turmoil.
In explaining Smithfield’s decision to close the plant, Mr. Smith, the CEO, and other company officials referred to a statewide ballot for 2018, Proposition 12, which requires that pork sold in the state come from hogs that are located in places that allow them to move more freely.
This procedure has not yet been implemented and has been challenging before US Supreme Court This fall. If not repealed, the law would apply even to meat packed out of state — the way Smithfield now plans to supply the local market — but company officials say that in any case, its passage reflects an unfavorable climate for California pork production.
Emotions sometimes flared outside the plant as animal rights activists condemned the confinement and treatment of pigs being slaughtered indoors. Protesters sang pigs and supplied them with water that had stuck their noses from slides in oncoming trucks.
In addition to his objections to Proposition 12, Smithfield maintains that the utility cost is about four times higher per head for California pork production than the company’s other 45 plants across the country, though it declined to reveal how it got there...
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