When the bottom line means more than the working men and women, support our brothers and sisters who will be laid off on March 21, 2016. ” Local 1001″
By Greg Trotter – CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Zolona Jones returned to her West Englewood home last month to find a letter jammed in a crack of the doorway.
“We regret to inform you that your position will be eliminated on March 21…” the letter stated.
The 60-day clock began ticking for Jones and 276 other workers at the old Nabisco bakery on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where Oreo cookies and other snacks have been made for decades. Deerfield-based Mondelez International, the global snack food company that owns the plant, intends to lay off about half of its 1,200 workers this year and shift some operations from Chicago to a plant in Mexico, a move intended to boost profit margins.
The layoffs mean lives disrupted, dreams deferred, in a city that’s bled manufacturing jobs for decades. Those who will be laid off are trying to figure out how to move forward without suffering a steep drop in income.
For most of her seven years at the plant, Jones has worked as a processor inspecting the quality of Oreos, Ritz crackers and other food — a $25-an-hour job with good benefits.
“It’s really a raw blow. But I have to realize that life is not over,” said Jones, 39, who lives with two of her three children and a chronically ill friend in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, and one she dreamed of leaving.
In its heyday, the hulking brick bakery at 7300 S. Kedzie Ave., which dates from the 1950s, employed more than 4,000 people. By 1993, when politicians and Nabisco executives held a press conference touting tax incentives and job retention tied to plant upgrades, there were 2,400.
Mondelez executives say the Chicago facility and the 600 jobs remaining there will continue to be an important piece of the company’s North American supply network, but some of its longest-tenured employees are skeptical. They say the layoffs mark the further decline of a once-proud bakery in a part of the city that desperately needs jobs with decent wages.
Last spring, there was brief hope the jobs would stay in Chicago. The so-called “lines of the future” — manufacturing lines with more advanced technology — would be installed either in the Chicago bakery or a newer plant in Salinas, Mexico. But Jones was among workers who had doubts.
“I was thinking to myself, it’s such an old building and they just built the Salinas plant,” Jones said. “Why would they put the machines here?”
Mondelez executives said they could save $46 million a year by installing the lines in Salinas. The company invited three unions — Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers; International Union of Operating Engineers; and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — to come up with plans to close the multimillion-dollar gap.
By July, it was settled: Mondelez would move some of its lines to Mexico and lay off half the Chicago workforce.
The move’s in line with Mondelez’s recent efforts to increase margins in its developed markets, while pushing for growth in emerging markets. Mondelez, a $30 billion company, came into existence when Kraft Foods split into two publicly traded companies in 2012. The spun-off North American grocery business, Kraft Foods Group, later merged with Heinz to become Kraft Heinz.
Like other food manufacturing companies, such as Kraft Heinz and ConAgra Foods, Mondelez is under tremendous pressure from shareholders to cut costs and improve profit margins as more consumers eschew processed food for healthier options.
Zolona Jones knows something about pressure. With curtains drawn in a dimly lit living room decorated with family photos, she recounted years of striving to make ends meet as a single mother of three, bouncing from bad to worse neighborhoods to find affordable housing.
For the past six years, Jones and her two children, Yasmeen, 19, and Xavier, 17, have helped take care of Peter Hamilton, 49, a longtime friend and former colleague who suffers from various chronic illnesses, such as pancreatitis, sickle cell disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
“Without her help, I probably wouldn’t even be alive,” Hamilton said.
Losing the Mondelez paycheck that keeps them all afloat will be “devastating,” Hamilton said.
Boy pleads for dad
Each day, Jesus Herrera makes the hourlong drive from his home in Merrillville, Ind., to the bakery, where he works the overnight shift as a machine operator in the packing department.
When he’s lucky, he works an eight-hour shift. Other times, those shifts stretch to 12- and 16-hour slogs when he’s called upon to work overtime.
Bleary-eyed, fueled by coffee and energy drinks, Herrera returns home through morning traffic and cares for his youngest two kids, ages 1 and 3, until his wife gets home from work and his 6-year-old son returns from school.
Herrera, 26, isn’t complaining about any of that. “It’s meant everything to my family.” Herrera said of the job, which he’s now poised to lose.
The job allowed Herrera and his family to move out of his parents’ house and into their own two-bedroom apartment near a good school — the young family’s first home of their own.
The $25 hourly wage and robust benefits opened new doors for Herrera’s family. He started dreaming of buying a house and sending his kids to private school.
His wife, Anahis, had plans to enroll in nursing school but instead got a job at McDonald’s last summer, bracing for the inevitable loss of her husband’s paycheck.
“We decided, let’s put school on hold and get back to work,” Jesus Herrera said.
Herrera said he doesn’t know what he’ll do next, possibly another manufacturing job if he can find one. He’s still hoping that Mondelez executives might change their minds. And his 6-year-old son Alejandro wrote a letter to Mondelez powers-that-be, begging them to spare his father’s job.
“I finally have my own room and if he loses his job I will be very sad,” the boy wrote. Herrera hoped to share the letter with Mondelez.
The baker’s union is the plant’s largest union and stands to lose the most members through layoffs. Those union members with the least amount of service time — those like Herrera, who has only been at the plant two years — are being laid off first, as per the terms of the labor contract.
Herrera recalled it was eerily quiet walking into work on Jan. 19, when the layoff notices were handed out. Some workers openly wept. Herrera held his emotions in.
“I didn’t want to show it, but I felt like a kid without the parents. … Everywhere I look, there’s no help,” Herrera said.
2 generations at bakery
Herman Owens, who’s worked at the Nabisco bakery for 38 years, fell to the concrete factory floor last month when a stool collapsed beneath him. He hurt his head, neck and back.
Owens was suspended from work for five days without pay for not inspecting the stool first.
“Given his time and experience with the company, (Owens) is expected to use better judgment and assess his work environment in order to ensure he is performing his job safely at all times,” according to the personnel record on the incident provided by Owens.
Owens, a steward with the baker’s union, claims it’s an example of how drastically the work environment’s changed under Mondelez’s ownership. Union representatives are being unfairly disciplined to further weaken the union’s position within the plant, Owens said. He’s since filed a grievance.
“It’s totally different now,” said Owens, 57. “You don’t know if they’re going to suspend you if you sneeze the wrong way.”
Laurie Guzzinati, a Mondelez spokeswoman, declined to comment specifically on Owens’ situation, saying it’s a confidential personnel matter. But she said union representatives are not being singled out and that safety is paramount.
“We deny the assertion that employees were disciplined without appropriate cause,” Guzzinati said.
As a boy, Owens visited the bakery, where his late father, General Owens, worked for more than 40 years. Now with his hair and mustache streaked with gray, Owens still remembers the enticing smell of real butter used in the cookies then.
The Nabisco bakery was once known for its family atmosphere and healthy wages, Owens said. Working there allowed his father to buy a home for his family in Englewood and put his five children through school.
And Owens, in turn, made enough money to move out of Englewood when the neighborhood grew more gang-infested and rife with violence.
Owens is unlikely to fall victim to the layoffs, considering his lengthy tenure at the plant. He’s planning on retiring at age 62, like his father. But he laments what it means for some of his younger colleagues.
“They’re going to have to start all over again,” Owens said. “Their lives are going to be completely changed now.”
Keeping hope alive
Jones, Herrera and others like them are facing uncertain futures.
The bakers union resolves to fight the layoffs. It has filed a lawsuit and a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming the layoffs are discriminatory and in violation of the labor contract.
The baker’s union is also the only one of the plant’s three unions to not negotiate the terms of the layoffs with the company, a point that’s caused some discord among its members. Union representatives have said they won’t surrender those jobs in advance of labor contract negotiations, which are now underway.
Mondelez’ Guzzinati stressed that the company’s Mexico investment and corresponding layoffs in Chicago are “separate and distinct” from the ongoing contract negotiations.
Since the first 277 workers were warned of layoffs, state and federal agencies have held numerous post-employment workshops at the Mondelez plant, offering assistance with finding other jobs, vocational training and continued education.
Jones is taking a measured approach. She’s been laid off before, in fact, from the former Wrigley gum plant on the South Side, where she worked for about seven years. She’d like to get out of factory work, which has taken its toll on her own health in recent years.
Her face lights up when talks about her passion: music. Her family’s started a music production business, a social network designed to promote unsigned artists. Jones hopes to take advantage of federal assistance for laid-off workers to go back to school and study business management.
It could be a while until it pays the bills, but it’s something to dream on.
“I keep hope alive,” Jones said. “With God’s help, I’m going to find a way.”