VERNON, Calif. — Teresa Robles begins her shift most days around dawn at a pork processing plant on an industrial corridor four miles south of downtown Los Angeles. She spends eight hours on her feet cutting tripe, a repetitive motion that has given her constant joint pain, as well as 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,” she said somberly at the end of a recent shift, “and now each day is getting a little closer to my last.”
The 436,000-square-foot factory, whose roots go back nearly a century, will be closed early next year. Virginia-based owner, Smithfield Foods, says it will be cheaper to supply the region from plants in the Midwest than to continue operations here.
“Unfortunately, the escalating costs of doing business in California required this decision,” said Shane Smith, Smithfield’s executive director, citing utilities and a voter-approved law regulating how pigs can be housed.
Workers and corporate officials see a bigger economic lesson in the impending shutdown. They just differ on what it is. For Ms. Robles, it is proof that despite years of often perilous work, “we are just a disposable product to them”. For the meat packer, it is a matter of politics and regulation that trumps trade.
The cost of doing business in California has long been a point of contention. It was cited last year when Silicon Valley electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla announced it was moving its headquarters to Texas. “There’s a limit to how much you can scale in the Bay Area,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said of home prices and long commutes.
As with many economic arguments, this one can take on a partisan hue.
Around the time of Tesla’s departure, a report from Stanford University’s conservative-minded Hoover Institution found that California-based companies were moving at an ever-increasing rate. In the first six months of last year, 74 corporate headquarters relocated from California, according to the report. In 2020, the report found that 62 companies had relocated.
Dee Dee Myers, a senior advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, counters this by pointing to California’s continued economic growth.
“Every time this story comes up, it’s consistently refuted by the facts,” said Ms Myers, director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. According to Ms. Myers’s office, the country’s gross domestic product grew 2 percent per year over the five-year period through 2021, while California’s grew 3.7 percent. The state is still the technical capital of the country.
Still, production in California has declined faster than in the entire country. Since 1990, the state has lost a third of its factory jobs — it now has about 1.3 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — compared with a 28 percent decline nationwide.
The Smithfield plant is an icon of California’s industrial heyday. In 1931, Barney and Francis Clougherty, brothers growing up in Los Angeles and the sons of Irish immigrants, started a meat-packing business that soon settled in Vernon. Their company, later branded Farmer John, became a household name in Southern California, recognized for producing the much-loved Dodger Dog and all-pastor who hissed at backyard cookouts. During World War II, the company supplied rations to American troops in the Pacific.
Nearly 20 years later, Les Grimes, a Hollywood set painter, was commissioned to create a factory mural, transforming a drab industrial structure into a pastoral landscape where young children chase after the cherub-like pigs. It became a tourist destination.
More recently, it has also been a symbol of the state’s social and political turbulence.
In explaining Smithfield’s decision to close the plant, Mr. Smith, the CEO and other company officials pointed to a 2018 statewide proposition 12 that requires pork sold in the state to come from breeding pigs. which are housed in spaces that they can move more freely.
The measure is not yet enforced and faces a challenge to the US Supreme Court this fall. If not quashed, the law will even apply to meat packaged out of state — as Smithfield now plans to supply the local market — but company officials say the passage at least reflects a climate that is inhospitable. for pork production in California.
Passions sometimes run high outside the factory as animal rights activists have condemned the confinement and treatment of the pigs slaughtered inside. Protesters have serenaded and watered pigs whose snouts stuck out from slats into oncoming trucks.
In addition to his objections to Proposition 12, Smithfield claims that utility costs are nearly four times higher per capita to produce pork in California than the company’s other 45 plants across the country, though it declined to say how it will make it. came to that conclusion. estimation.
John Grant, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents Ms. Robles and other workers at the plant, said Smithfield announced the shutdown as the parties would begin negotiating a new contract.
“A total blow and, frankly, a shock,” said Mr Grant, who worked at the factory in the 1970s.
He said wage increases were a priority for the union that is negotiating. The company has offered a $7,500 bonus to employees who stay until the closure and has increased its hourly wage, previously $19.10 at the top of the scale, to $23.10. (The rate at the company’s Midwestern union centers is still a little higher.)
But Mr Grant said the plant’s closure was an insult to its members, who have toiled through the pandemic as essential workers. Smithfield was fined nearly $60,000 in 2020 by California regulators for failing to take adequate measures to protect workers from contracting the coronavirus.
“After everything the workers have done during the pandemic, are they suddenly going to flee? They destroy lives,” said Mr. Grant, adding that the union is looking for new jobs for workers and hopes to find a buyer for the factory.
Karen Chapple, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, said the closure was an example of “the greater trend of deindustrialization” in areas like Los Angeles. “It probably doesn’t make sense to be here from an efficiency standpoint,” she said. “It’s the tail end of a long exodus.”
According to state data, the number of food production jobs in Los Angeles County has fallen 6 percent since 2017.
And as those jobs are being cut, workers like Ms. Robles wonder what will come next.
More than 80 percent of the workers at the Smithfield factory are Latino — a mix of first-generation immigrants and natives. Most are over 50. The security and benefits have kept people in their jobs, union leaders say, but the nature of the job has made it difficult to recruit younger workers who have better alternatives.
On a recent cloudy morning, the air in Vernon was thick with the smell of ammonia. Workers wearing surgical masks and wearing safety glasses and helmets entered the factory. The sound of forklifts buzzed behind a high fence.
Huge warehouses line the streets in the area. Some are empty; others wholesale local baked goods and sweets.
Mrs. Robles started four years ago at the Smithfield factory. For more than two decades, she owned a small business selling products in downtown Los Angeles. She loved her job, but when her brother died in 2018, she needed money to honor his wish to have his body shipped from Southern California to their hometown of Colima, Mexico. She sold the company for a few thousand dollars, then started the factory and made $14 an hour.
“I was proud,” she said, remembering the first few months at her new job.
Mrs. Robles is the sole breadwinner for her family. Her husband has several health complications, including surviving 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 has recently started working in the factory, helps with the costs.
“But this is my responsibility – it’s up to me to take care of,” she said.
Ms. Robles has long said the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed, and now she finds herself repeating it often throughout the day for strength.
“They’re kicking us out with no answers,” she said.
Other employees, such as Mario Melendez, 67, who has worked at the factory for a decade, share that sense of open-mindedness.
It’s an honor to know that his work is helping to feed people across Southern California, he said — especially around the holidays, when the factory’s ribs, ham 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, like his mother, died of the virus. He was devastated.
“A terrible shock,” says Mr. Melendez, who says he feels betrayed by the company.
So is Leo Velasquez.
He started working the night shift in 1990, earning $7 an hour packing and sealing bacon. A few years later, he switched to days and worked 10-hour shifts.
“I gave my life to this place,” said Mr Velasquez, 62.
Over the years, his body began to wear out. In 2014, he underwent shoulder replacement surgery. Still, he had hoped to stay in the factory until he was ready to retire.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Where I’m going from here I don’t know.”