In this very poor, rural pocket of South Jersey, the locals are grateful for what they have, especially jobs.
But the lives of 370 families were tossed off-balance when the parent company of the Italian-foods brand Progresso – whose manufacturing plant has been a fixture at 500 W. Elmer Rd. since 1970 – announced its “tentative decision” to close the plant by early 2018.
General Mills, the Minneapolis-based food giant that has operated the plant since 2001, delivered the news – which one union leader called a “kick to the stomach” – July 21.
It came just two months after United Food & Commercial Workers Local 152 ratified a four-year contract that all but ensured job security at the Vineland plant during its term.
“Nobody saw this coming,” said UFCW local president Brian String. “We want answers. Is there any possible way to work in conjunction with politicians and the state to keep this plant going and keep these people working?”
String and union leaders plan to meet Wednesday at a Vineland hotel with members of General Mills’ labor-relations team.
In its July 21 statement, General Mills said it might “transfer production to other U.S. facilities to eliminate excess soup capacity in its North American supply chain.”
When asked to clarify whether too much soup was being made and not enough being sold, company spokeswoman Kelsey Roemhildt responded in an email: “The company has been reviewing its entire supply chain network to identify ways to optimize operations and reduce excess capacity. That ongoing review led us to this tentative decision. This is about aligning capacity with demand to remain competitive.”
About one in five Cumberland County residents lives in poverty, the state’s highest level, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development. More than 60,000 people live in Vineland, where the average household income is $31,041, among the lowest in the state.
“We’re a big city that needs a lot of jobs,”
“Our economy can’t absorb that many lost jobs at once,” said State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), whose sprawling district encompasses Vineland. “This will be real hurtful and a real setback.”
Said union leader String: “The disposable income that will leave this area and not go into the stores will really have collateral damage.”
Van Drew has reached out to state officials, including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, to lobby General Mills, a company not known for changing its mind, to do just that on the Vineland plant. Last week, Van Drew met with a dozen union members at his Vineland district office.
“We don’t have the best numbers in Cumberland County,” he said. “Unemployment is about 5 percent in the state; we are at about 7.1 percent. We are always lower in per capita income; we’re always higher in infant mortality and teen pregnancy. . . . This is precisely the wrong place to close a plant.”
Progresso, which has had a plant in Vineland since the 1940s, currently runs four soup-production lines here. According to String, General Mills says it no longer needs that many. The company has two production lines in Hannibal, Mo., where it wants to move the Vineland operation.
(Ironically, General Mills got into hot water last spring for over-touting Progresso soups’ Vineland farms connection. Acting on a complaint by rival Campbell Soup Co., the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council, under the Better Business Bureau, forced the company to modify or discontinue four national TV ads on the grounds that they were misleading.)
John Romeo, a union boilermaker for 28 years, sees the possible plant closure in Vineland as being all about union-busting.
“Five of the six plants they have closed in recent years were all union,” Romeo said. “Eighty percent of Progresso soup customers live in the Northeast, so why move production to Hannibal, Missouri, and have to truck everything back to the East Coast? It makes no sense.”
Van Drew said he was already pitching to state officials the idea of bringing another company in to replace Progresso.
“I don’t think that people outside of Vineland particularly associate Progresso with that town,” said Barbara E. Kahn, a marketing professor and director of the Jay Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “People do relate, though, with the loss of American jobs. In this case, it doesn’t sound like the jobs are going to others. They are just disappearing.”
Kahn speculated that changing consumer tastes – away from canned-soup products toward fresher alternatives – may be a factor, the same pressure that Camden-based Campbell’s faces.
If the Vineland plant closure occurs, General Mills said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company will spend upward of $18 million on severance packages.
Wendy Ardagna, executive director of workforce and community education at Cumberland County College, said the school was prepared to retrain any displaced workers as soon as possible.
Rafaela Felipe, 43, is a single mother of three, including an 18-year-old disabled daughter. She’s been with Progresso for 12 years and recently bought a house in Bridgeton.
For six years, Felipe has been putting labels on soup cans. She makes $21.81 an hour.
“My kids got sad” when word of the plant’s imminent closure came down, said Felipe, who was among those who met with Van Drew last week. “Everyone down here will be affected by this.”
Derrell Jarmon, 40, said it was like hitting the lottery 11 years ago when he landed his job as a kitchen-systems operator. He makes the soup and earns $21.41 an hour.
“This is one of the highest-paying jobs in the area for someone with a high school diploma,” said Jarmon, a single parent raising six kids. “We make more than prison workers” in the local system.
“It’s been that good, and it could all be gone soon.”