What Were Their Names?

Rick Sprout

Imagine if the headlines read “Fifty four people killed in terrorist attack on Binghamton’s Southside”.  That is exactly what happened on Dec. 6, 2011, when HP Hood LLC announced the closing of the Crowley’s Manufacturing plant and warehouse on Conklin Avenue.

The great Woody Guthrie, author of This Land is Your Land, also wrote Reuben James, mourning the loss of a merchant marine ship torpedoed by fascists during WWII.  He originally sang all those lost by name.  The song proved too long and was changed to the refrain; “What were their names? Oh, what were their names?”  Out of respect for those 54 whose livelihood was ripped from them, we will not print their names. What we will do instead is name those responsible and the system they represent.

First a few facts; “Crowley’s”, despite the mythology that surrounds it has not been “locally owned”  since 1983 when it was acquired for about $16 million by Wessanen NV (WNV), a Dutch multi-national incorporated in 1913 but tracing its roots back to the late 1600’s.  WNV also scooped up other dairies and through research & development was able to introduce yogurt production into Crowley’s expanded line.  Within 5 years WNV’s profits tripled from Dfl 13 million to Dfl 39 million.  In 2000, WNV began to focus on “health & wellness”  and began their divestment of US dairies.

HP Hood of Chelsea, MA became particularly interested in Crowley’s because of the number of plants in the northeast.  National Dairy of Dallas, TX acquired both Crowley’s & Kemps Dairy of Minneapolis, making it the number two fluid milk processor in the U.S.  Hood & National Dairy attempted a merger in  2002 that was blocked by federal trade regulations.  In April, 2004, Hood “triumphed” and Crowley’s , along with Kemps was acquired.  The new company, HP Hood LLC, with pres. & CEO, John Kaneb of Boston, MA, had combined total revenue of $2.1 billion dollars and one of the top 10 dairy companies in North America.

John Kaneb, whom Boston Magazine listed number 28 of the 50 wealthiest Bostonians in 2006, knows, “you can make a fortune selling life’s necessities…milk &oil,” is a specialist in buying stakes in struggling and underperforming companies cutting their costs.  Kaneb bought a controlling interest in Gulf Oil, more than tripling its sales to $4.6 billion and quietly selling his stake in 2005.  Kaneb acquired Hood in 1995. If any of these practices sound familiar – they should – Kanab’s neighbor & coming in at number 35 is Steven Pagliuca, managing director of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s old firm.  Ever wonder why the Hood Blimp flies over Red Sox games?  Kaneb is part owner.

On Feb. 28, 2007, a story appeared in The Business Review, the headline; “Crowley milk processing plant to close because of excess capacity.”  Hit woman/Hood spokesperson, Lynne Bohan’s stated, “H Hood, LLC will close its Crowley processing plant on Commerce Ave., Albany by the end of April.

Eighty people were out of work. Sales and distribution operations would continue.  Bohan went on that because of excess capacity in the region, Hood determined that facilities in Binghamton and Mass. could   handle the production.  “Hood expects the consolidation of operations will strengthen the dairy company’s ability to remain competitive.”  Bohan then added insult to injury. “The employees in Albany have a long history with the Crowley Family*1 .  They should be proud of their service and the quality of the products they produced.”

In Binghamton Crowley’s looked good, on the surface, that is. In March of 2009, for instance, they installed “sustainable” energy efficient lighting.  But the rumors had started.  Workers at the plant especially drivers with larger sources of bits and pieces of information began to think about other jobs, moving away, etc.  Inside the plant itself harsher working conditions, no nonsense management, etc. became the rule.  By 2010 and early 2011, the signs were quite obvious for those that knew where to look, most notably on the outside.  Hood/Crowley’s was “sprucing up” the exterior plant; an old utility shed was torn down, the entire parking lot was repaved and the tanks were painted,  in other words, things that better off homeowners do prior to “listing” their homes for sale.  During this same period Weis took over (rented) the Giant Market Chain.  HP Hood Crowley’s local sales & operations are located in Giant/Akel   properties at 93 Pennsylvania Ave.

Sadly, in retrospect, Teamsters Local 693 rebuffed the growing uncertainty about Crowley’s future.  They had successfully negotiated a 3 year contract (with plenty of concessions) in the summer/fall, 2011.  Then on Dec. 6, 2011, hit woman Bohan issued the following statement to outgoing County Executive, Patrick Brennan.  The plant would cease operations by April 1st, 2012.

Unlike Bohan’s Albany letter in 2007, insincere allusions to family pride, etc. were gone.  What remained was the cold hard language of business, profit, competiveness…  Teamster business agent, Bob Firmstone was shocked; “We were on our way to negotiations when they called us and said, ‘The deals done-we’re closing in April.’”

Brennan was quoted as saying; “It’s always sad to hear when any employer will lay anyone off in the area…”  An “external provider” gave outplacement “assistance” which consisted “primarily of watching videos about the fracking industry,” said one worker who requested  anonymity.

Adding to the bitter taste, Firmstone adds that repeated calls to Binghamton City Hall were not returned.  So much for symbolic protest against fracking when the “powers” aid in the economic conditions that set about the end results. 

Incoming Co Exec, Debbie Preston, so excited with the prospect of beating up on county workers wasn’t even heard from, perhaps because HP Hood LL demonstrated quite clearly the ruinous results of privatization.  The story made all the TV stations. What angered and hurt many workers and community people was how few people even knew about the closing.  The           Binghamton Press, official gatekeeper for the region ran the story on its back page. 

Here is what we do know.  Since closing, 54 employees with good paying jobs (average of $20/hour + benefits) are gone.  A chain link fence that surrounds the Conklin Ave plant and blocks fire right of ways to its neighbors now has three strands of barbed wire.  City Councilman, John Matzo’s sign company has removed the oval shaped Hood logo, turning yet another empty building into a local, not corporate hulk.

Last minute attempts to save Crowley’s fell on deaf ears.  What little activity that ensued was “too little, too late.”  Councilman Matzo talked with Hood spokesperson about the building who said, “ We have a buyer in mind. Pressed on whom, they were silent.  Travel the streets of Broome County and look at shuttered factories, offices, homes whose owners all “have buyers in mind.”

Private business corporations occupy a powerful position in our local political economy.  It bears repeating that capitalism has bestowed upon the business corporation a position of privilege.  This position can be challenged or weakened but it usually remains intact.

This is a sad tale.  Because of space limitations we will continue in the next issue, not the conclusion, but perhaps a way forward.

*1 Competitive/Family?  Ask yourself what family throws you out because you weren’t competitive enough?  Sounds more like corporate child abuse.

 

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