VERNON, Calif. — Teresa Robles begins her shift around dawn on most days at a pork processing plant in an industrial corridor four miles south of downtown Los Angeles. She spends eight hours chopping her legs, a repetitive motion that has given her constant joint pain, but also an income of $17.85 an hour that supports her family.
So in early June, when whispers began among 1,800 workers that the facility would soon be closed, Ms Robles, 57, hoped they were just rumours.
“But it was true,” he said sadly at the end of a recent innings, “and now every day is a little closer to my last day.”
The 436,000-square-foot factory with nearly a century-old roots is set to close early next year. Its Virginia-based owner, Smithfield Foods, says it will be cheaper to supply the area from factories in the Midwest than to continue operations here.
“Unfortunately, the rising cost of doing business in California necessitates this decision,” said Smithfield Chief Executive Shane Smith, citing utility rates and a voter-approved law on how pigs can be kept.
Employees and company executives see a huge economic lesson in the impending shutdown. They just differ on what it is. For Ms Robles, it is proof that despite years of often risky work, “we are only disposable to them.” For Meatpacker, it’s a matter of politics and regulation trumping commerce.
The cost of doing business in California has long been a matter of controversy. It was cited last year when the electric-vehicle maker, which has been a Silicon Valley success story, announced it was moving its headquarters to Texas. “There’s a limit to how large you can scale in the Bay Area,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, referring to housing prices and longer commutes.
As is the case with many economic arguments, it can take on a partisan tinge.
At the time of Tesla’s exit, a report from the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University found that California-based companies were leaving at an accelerated rate. According to the report, in the first six months of last year, 74 headquarters moved from California. In 2020, the report found, 62 companies were known to relocate.
Dee Dee Myers, a Democrat, a senior adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom, counters by pointing to California’s continued economic growth.
“Every time this narrative comes out, it is constantly disproved by the facts,” said Ms. Myers, director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. According to Ms. Myers’ office, the country’s GDP grew at an annual pace of 2 percent over the five-year period through 2021, while California grew by 3.7 percent. The state is still the technical capital of the country.
Still, manufacturing declined more quickly in California than in the entire country. Since 1990, the state has lost a third of its factory jobs — it now stands at about 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 industrial heyday. In 1931, Barney and Francis Clugerty, brothers who grew up in Los Angeles and sons of Irish immigrants, started a meatpacking business that soon settled in Vernon. His company, later branded as Farmer John’s, became a household name in Southern California, recognized for its production of the beloved Dodger Dogs and Al Pastor, which burns at backyard cookouts. During World War II, the company supplied rations to American troops in the Pacific.
Nearly 20 years later, Hollywood set painter, Les Grimes, was commissioned to paint a mural at the plant, transforming a monotonous industrial structure into a rustic landscape where young children chase cherubic-looking pigs. It became a sightseeing place.
Recently, it has also been a symbol of the social and political unrest of the state.
In explaining Smithfield’s decision to close the plant, the chief executive officer, and other company executives pointed to a 2018 statewide ballot, Proposition 12, which requires that pork sold in the state be kept in those locations. Breeding comes from pigs that allow them to move more freely.
The measure is yet to be implemented and is facing a challenge before the US Supreme Court this fall. If it’s not reversed, the law would also apply to meat packaged out-of-state — the way Smithfield now plans to supply the local market — but company officials say that in any case. , its route reflects the climate inhospitable for pork production in California.
Sometimes passion outside the plant is rampant as animal rights activists condemn the pigs being slaughtered and their treatment. The demonstrators worshiped and provided water to the pigs, whose snouts protruded from the slats in oncoming trucks.
In addition to its objections to Proposition 12, Smithfield says it costs utilities nearly four times more per capita to produce pork in California than the company’s 45 other plants nationwide, though it declined to say. Given how it got there. assessment.
John Grant, president of 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 negotiations on a new contract.
Mr. Grant, who worked at the plant in the 1970s, said, “An absolute gut punch and, frankly, a jolt.”
He said the pay hike was a priority for the union to go into negotiations. The company has offered a $7,500 bonus to employees who live through the closing and raised the hourly wage, on top of the previously $19.10 scale, to $23.10. (The company’s unionized Midwest plants still have a slightly higher rate.)
But Mr Grant said the factory closure was a disgrace to his members, who worked hard through the pandemic as essential workers. Smithfield was fined nearly $60,000 by California regulators in 2020 for failing to take adequate measures to protect workers from the coronavirus.
“After all, what have the employees done during the pandemic, they are suddenly going to run away now? They are destroying lives,” Mr. Grant said, adding that the union is working to find new jobs for workers and hopes to help find a buyer for the plant.
Karen Chappell, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, said the closing was an example of a “great trend of deindustrialization” in areas such as Los Angeles. “It probably doesn’t make sense to be here from an efficiency standpoint,” she said. “It’s the end of a long exodus.”
Indeed, the number of food manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles County has declined 6 percent since 2017, according to state data.
And as those jobs are abandoned, workers like Ms Robles wonder what will happen next.
More than 80 percent of the workers at the Smithfield plant are Latino—a mix of immigrants and first-generation Natives. Most are over the age of 50. Security and benefits have kept people in their jobs, union leaders say, but the nature of labor has made it harder to recruit younger workers who have better options.
On a recent cold morning, the air in Vernon was thick with the smell of ammonia. Workers wearing surgical masks and wearing goggles and helmets walked into the plant. The sound of a forklift overtook a high fence.
There are big godowns on the streets of the area. Some are sitting empty; Others wholesale produce local baked goods and candies.
Ms. Robles started at the Smithfield plant four years ago. For more than two decades he 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 her desire to send his body from Southern California to Colima, Mexico, their hometown. He sold the business for a few thousand dollars, then started at the factory, earning $14 an hour.
“I was proud,” she said as she recalled the early months of her new job.
Ms. Robles is the sole provider for her family. Her husband has had a number of health complications, including relapses of a heart attack in recent months, so she now bears the $2,000 mortgage payment for their home in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sometimes her 20-year-old son, who recently started working at the plant, helps with the expenses.
“But it’s my responsibility – it’s up to me to provide it,” 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 with no answer,” she said.
Other workers, such as Mario Melendez, 67, who has worked at the plant for a decade, share that unmatched sentiment.
It’s an honor to know that his labor helps feed people in Southern California, he said — especially around the holidays, when factory ribs, ham and hot dogs will be part of people’s festivities.
But the factory is also a place where he contracted the 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 has been duped by the company.
So does Leo Velasquez.
He started the night shift in 1990, earning $7 an hour to package and seal bacon. A few years later, he moved to days, working 10-hour shifts.
“I have given my life to this place,” said Mr. Velasquez, 62.
With the passage of time, his body started deteriorating. He had shoulder replacement surgery in 2014. Nevertheless, he expected that he would remain at the factory until he was ready to retire.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Where I go from here, I don’t know.”