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 They 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. Estimation.
John Grant, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, who represents Miss Robles and other workers at the plant, said Smithfield announced the closure just as the two sides were to begin negotiating a new contract.
“Very shocking, frankly, shocking,” said Mr. Grant, who worked at the factory in the 1970s.
He said that raising wages was a priority for the union to enter the negotiations. The company offered a bonus of $7,500 to employees who remained until closing and raised hourly wages, which was previously $19.10 at the top of the scale, to $23.10. (The rate at the company’s unionized Midwest factories is still slightly higher.)
But Mr Grant said closing the plant was an insult to its members, who worked during the pandemic as essential workers. Smithfield was fined nearly $60,000 by California regulators in 2020 for failing to take appropriate measures to protect workers from contracting the coronavirus.
“After all that employees have done throughout the pandemic, are they now going to flee all of a sudden? They are ruining lives,” Mr. Grant said, adding that the union was working to find new jobs for workers and hoped to help find a buyer for the plant.
Karen Chapel, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, said the shutdown was an example of the “bigger deindustrialization trend” in areas like Los Angeles. “It probably doesn’t make sense for me to be here from an efficiency perspective,” she said. “It’s the tail end of a long journey.”
In fact, the number of food manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles County has fallen 6 percent since 2017, according to state data.
As these jobs are shed, workers like Ms. Robles wonder what will happen next.
More than 80 percent of the employees at the Smithfield plant are Hispanic — a mix of immigrants and first-generation natives. Most of them are over 50 years old. Union leaders say security and benefits have kept people in their jobs, but the nature of the work has made it difficult to hire younger workers with better alternatives.
On a recent cloudy morning, the air in Vernon was thick with the smell of ammonia. Workers in surgical masks and carrying goggles and helmets entered the factory. The hum of forklifts behind the high fence.
Huge warehouses line the streets in the area. Some are sitting vacant. Others produce wholesale local baked goods and sweets.
Ms. Robles started her Smithfield plant four years ago. For more than two decades she has owned a small business selling products in downtown Los Angeles. She loved her work, but when her brother died in 2018, she needed the money to honor his desire to have his body sent from Southern California to Colima, Mexico, their hometown. The company sold for two thousand dollars, then started the factory, and made $14 an hour.
“I was proud,” she said, recalling the first months at her new job.
Mrs. Robles is the sole breadwinner for her family. Her husband has many health complications, including surviving a heart attack in recent months, so she is now taking on the $2,000 in mortgage payment for their home in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sometimes her 20-year-old son, who recently started working at the factory, helps with expenses.
“But that’s my responsibility – it’s up to me to help,” she said.
Mrs. Robles has always recited the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed, and now she finds herself often repeating it throughout the day for strength.
“They are kicking us out without answers,” she said.
Other workers, such as Mario Melendez, 67, who has worked at the plant for a decade, share that loose-feeling.
He said it’s an honor to know that his work helps feed people across Southern California—especially on holidays, when factory ribs, pork, and hot dogs are part of people’s celebrations.
But the factory is also a place where he contracted the coronavirus, which he passed on to his brother, who died of the virus, and so did his mother. It was wrecked.
“Appalling shock,” said Mr. Melendez, who says he feels betrayed by the company.
So does Leo Velazquez.
He started the night shift in 1990, making $7 an hour packing and sealing bacon. After a few years, he switched to 10-hour workdays.
“I gave my life for this place,” said Mr. Velasquez, 62.
Over the years, his body began to erode. In 2014, he had shoulder replacement surgery. However, he hoped to continue in the factory until he was ready to retire.
“It won’t happen,” he said. “Where to go from here, I don’t know.”