Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Can Leamington Heinz plant jobs be saved?

Recently, the Letter to Editor column in The London Free Press has carried a number of submissions discussing the closing of the 104-year-old Heinz plant in Leamington. Despite what is being said, the truth may be that the plant was headed for closure. No amount of wage cutting and/or benefit trimming would have saved the plant.

Reportedly Rob Crawford, president of the union representing Leamington Heinz workers, offered to open the collective agreement. The new Heinz owners, Berkshire Hathaway and the giant Brazilian private-equity group 3G Capital, were not interested.

Possibly the folk in Leamington should take inspiration from events unfolding in Girgarre, Australia, where Heinz closed a tomato processing plant in 2011. A coalition of workers, growers and community leaders created the Goulburn Valley Food Co-op. Their first goal is to build a factory replacing Heinz while continuing the local tradition of turning local ingredients into quality foods.

The reason the Aussies are looking to build a new factory is simple. Heinz practised a scorched earth policy when it came to the plant. Before being put onto the marke, the place was hollowed out, stripped of all equipment necessary to operate the plant. Even the rat barriers were removed.

The claim is made that the co-op in Girgarre, Australia, was inspired by the actions taken by Argentinian workers a little more than a decade ago. You may recall that in 2001 the large South American country suffered a financial and political collapse with thousands of companies declaring bankruptcy. The Argentinian owners walked away from these concerns to escape the burden of debt these companies had accumulated.

In some cases, the workers occupied the plants and kept them running despite of abandonment by the owners. More than a decade later, many of these worker-run factories, these co-operatives, are still operating.

According to AlterNet:

As a result of the severe 2002-2003 economic crisis, worker-run companies began to mushroom in a broad range of areas, including the food industry, steel, textile, footwear and plastic factories, meat-packing plants, ceramic, glass and rubber manufacturers, graphic design companies, transport firms, restaurants, health businesses and even a five-star hotel.

The companies were reclaimed by their workers after the owners disappeared overnight, leaving behind jobless employees, piles of debt, factories stripped of everything not bolted down -- and, often, charges of tax evasion or fraud.

Many of the companies are producing and even exporting again after they were taken over by the workers, who were owed months and sometimes years of back wages.

What AlterNet doesn't mention is that many of the abandoned companies claimed by workers have been hit with legal actions by the owners wanting to reclaim their former businesses.

For instance, the sons of Marcelo Iurcovich, once the clear owner of the then five-star hotel Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires, were in court in 2012 battling to regain control of the building. Previously, an attempt had been made to evict the workers but without success.

The hotel was built in 1978 for the FIFA World Cup and financed with public money provided by the military dictatorship then ruling the country. The loan was never repaid. The ownership of the building will now be decided by the courts.

The hotel may be open but it is just limping along, it is no longer a five-star destination. Once the ownership question is settled, possibly there will be an influx of capital to refurbish the aging place.

All this Google searching made me aware of Robert Owen, an owner of the New Lanark Mills in Scotland in 1799. Thanks to his visionary management policies, Owen inspired the co-operative movement and was an early force in trade unionism and the garden city movement. Today New Lanark is a World Heritage Site.

The co-operative movement still has followers in Scotland. The Co-operative Party, the political arm of the movement, is the fourth largest party in the Scottish parliament. Globally, the United Nations calculates nearly 1 billion people own shares in cooperatives. The top 300 cooperatives around the world — known as the '300 List' — are said to be worth an estimated $1.6 trillion.
According to the U.N., cooperatives — member-driven business enterprises that put people front and centre — offer an alternative economic model.

When I consider the long list of business closures that have rippled through Southwestern Ontario in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if it is not time to give the co-operative movement serious consideration.

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