Union Tribune

April 24, 2003

Where have all the good jobs gone?
Workers mourn cookie's move to Mexico


FAIR LAWN, N.J. Marie Portelli savored her first American cookie when she was a girl in Italy, long before she came to the United States and found work at the immense Nabisco plant in New Jersey.

It came in the package of American treats her emigrant aunt and uncle sent every Christmas. She called it biscotti con e fichi cookie with a fig. It was, of course, the Fig Newton.

"It had the smell of something sweet and delicious from America," Portelli said, wiping her eyes at the memory. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. Certain smells bring you back."

Portelli and her husband, Giovanni, are among the scores of immigrants who built their lives with wages from Nabisco. Since 1958, the New Jersey plant has turned train-car loads of flour, sugar and other ingredients into some of Nabisco's most popular cookies.

This month, the Fig Newton line here will roll to a stop, and production will shift to a plant in Mexico owned by Nabisco's corporate parent, Kraft Foods. The move to Monterrey, a three-hour drive from the Texas border, will leave Nabisco's Chicago bakery as the Fig Newton's sole U.S. producer.

The loss of the classic American cookie continues the steady erosion of America's manufacturing work force. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, about 2.1 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the past three years, continuing a decades-long trend.

Immigration scholars Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut took stock of the losses in their 1996 book, "Immigrant America."

"The structure of the American labor market looks less and less like a pyramid, where successive generations can move up gradually along multiple layers of blue-collar and white-collar occupations," Portes and Rumbaut wrote.

Instead, they said, it resembles an hourglass, with large groups at both ends of the wage spectrum and a narrowing band of middle-income manufacturing jobs in the center.

In March, Nabisco laid off 240 of the Fair Lawn plant's 620 workers, then recalled 120 for what may be just a few weeks of work. The layoffs included some workers with as much as 17 years seniority.

Many hope they will be called back to make Oreos, Ritz Crackers and Saltines, which will still be produced at the plant.

"In one way I'm thinking I'll be coming back, in another way I'm scared," said one worker, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who asked not to be identified. "I've got a mortgage. I know if I go looking for another job, they're gonna offer me five or six dollars."

The Portellis timed their American dream just right, immigrating to the United States when it was still possible even without special skills, a high school diploma or English fluency to find manufacturing jobs with good salaries and benefits. The union contract allowed them to start collecting a pension when they hit "the golden 80" the total of their age and years of service.

"The lifestyle that industrial unionism made possible for unskilled blue-collar workers is becoming a thing of the past," said Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College in Minnesota. "In historical terms, it really hasn't lasted long."

Many of the jobs have gone to Mexico. With a big push from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the low-skill labor markets in the two countries have become increasingly integrated. Meanwhile, unskilled Americans and immigrant newcomers often scramble for $6-or $7-an-hour service-industry jobs.

Cathy Pernu, a Kraft spokeswoman, wouldn't disclose the pay range for the makers of Fig Newtons in Mexico.

"We pay a competitive wage based on prevailing rates in the industry and in the local market," Pernu said.

In Mexico, that generally means a worker will need about 21/2 days to earn the nearly $20 that the lowest-paid workers at the New Jersey plant now earn in an hour. Even that wage is too high for some manufacturers, who in recent years have moved thousands of jobs from Mexico to China, where factories beckon with wages below $1 an hour.

For the Portellis and hundreds of other immigrant and and U.S.-born workers, the Nabisco plant offered a sort of Camelot on the cookie line, a brief shining moment when hard work provided a comfortable living and a solid place in the American middle class.

"For us, America meant you had the opportunity to work, to send your children to school, to live in a nice home," said Marie Portelli, recalling the vision that until the 1960s emptied parts of Italy with the same urgency that today draws the work force of entire villages in Mexico.

Now the taste of Fig Newtons has turned bitter for union leaders such as Tom Gobbo, president of the local union of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union.

Gobbo, whose father worked at the plant, wonders if it has a future. In the late 1980s, he said, the work force was more than 1,000. Now it is just under half that.

"Over the last couple years we're down from a nine-oven bakery to six," Gobbo said. "How much more will they strip until there's not enough business for them to stay in Fair Lawn."

Like Marie Portelli, Gobbo talks nostalgically about the Fig Newton, which was introduced in 1891 and named after a town in Massachusetts.

"Some products kind of define who we are," he said, sitting at a restaurant on Fair Lawn Avenue where the busboy was a Salvadoran immigrant who said he earned $4 an hour, plus tips. "They remind you that you're at home. If they disappear, where are you?"

Kraft's Pernu said Fair Lawn's loss of the Fig Newton should be seen as part of a long-standing move for greater efficiency and not as a precursor of a broader Nabisco flight to Mexico.

"It has always been our goal to make the best possible use of our manufacturing facilities," she said, noting that products have historically been shifted among Nabisco's U.S. plants for the sake of efficiency.

Pernu said corporate policy would not permit a visit to the Fair Lawn plant, which according to workers used to welcome visitors. Pernu also declined to name the locations of the company's other bakeries.

"We're not giving out the names of our facilities," she said.

She cited "security concerns," declining to state what they were.

Workers at Fair Lawn said they are constantly taunted with reports of production rates at Nabisco Plants in Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

"They always tell you about competition with the other plants," Giovanni Portelli said of the supervisors.

"I think they are under pressure and are feeling intimidated themselves," Marie said.

More than a dozen longtime workers at the plant said the pressure to increase production began building in the late 1980s, when RJR Nabisco was the object of a record-breaking $19 billion leveraged buyout that inspired the book "Barbarians at the Gate" and the movie of the same name. It also inspired round after round of cost-cutting and efficiency moves at Nabisco bakeries.

The workers said the pressure became more intense after Kraft's 2000 acquisition of the company.

"That was the icing on the cake," said Giovanni Portelli, echoing others who said the plant has increased production speed even as it has cut the work force.

Even workers who are insulated from layoffs by decades of service are worried by the Fig Newton's migration to Mexico.

"We're all affected by it," said Cruz Velez, 55, a native of Puerto Rico who started at the plant when he finished high school in 1965. "When other people lose their jobs that means my job is in jeopardy, too. Little by little they're eliminating the jobs."

Velez, who has reached his "golden 80," said he doesn't want to retire because if he did, he would have to pay about $700 a month to cover health insurance for himself and his wife.

The Portellis don't have that worry.

In February, Marie, 55, and Giovanni, 61, retired, taking with them pensions that total about $3,700 a month. When their insurance expires in June, they plan to be back in Italy, living in the house they bought in the Sicilian town where Marie ate her first Fig Newton. Their health care will be provided by the Italian government.

"We have been very lucky," Marie said.

Alma Ruiz, who immigrated 20 years ago from El Salvador, was not so fortunate. Ruiz was laid off last month after four years with Nabisco.

"We came here for the work and now it's going (to Mexico)," said Ruiz, who is facing the globalized future with anxious uncertainty.

"The people just ask lots of questions," she added in heavily accented English. "They wonder what's going to happen and nobody knows nothing. It's very stress."

Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; jerry.kammer@copleydc.com