Nestle to Close Oxnard Plant, Leave 550 Jobless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move that will cost about 550 workers their jobs, Nestle USA has announced that it will shut down and sell its plant here, ending a decades-old operation that has been a steady source of employment for generations of local residents.

Nestle bought the Oxnard plant in September during the midst of a labor dispute between workers and the former owner, Nabisco Foods. Under Nabisco, the factory produced Ortega Mexican foods, A-1 Steak Sauce, Regina Vinegar and the world's supply of Grey Poupon mustard.

The plant received a blast of national attention months before the sale when a group of female workers complained they were consistently denied bathroom breaks and resorted to wearing diapers on the production line.

Since selling the Oxnard plant and its line of Ortega products last year, Nabisco has been steadily shifting key operations to the East Coast.

Already, production of A-1 Steak Sauce has been moved to a plant in Maryland. And Sunday will be the last day of production in Oxnard for Regina Vinegar and Grey Poupon, a move that will leave about 120 full-time employees without jobs.

And now, Nestle officials have announced they will shift the processing of Ortega chilies--a seasonal operation that usually starts in the summer--to other facilities.

The move will leave about 550 seasonal employees without work. And it will silence--at least for the immediate future--the production lines at the 3rd Street facility for the first time in at least 50 years.

That prospect saddens and angers employees, union representatives and elected officials who have worked in recent months to keep the plant open.

"It's like all of a sudden they just dropped a bomb on us," said Richard Guzman, 44, a forklift driver who has worked at the Oxnard factory for 14 years. "I can't explain how I feel. I've worked here so long, I don't know what I'm going to do."

Added Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, who met with Nestle officials and urged them to establish a permanent operation in Oxnard: "We laid out the red carpet and they weren't interested. I'm not only disappointed, but I'm rather disgusted with the lack of community responsibility."

Nestle spokeswoman Julie Thomas-Lowe said Thursday that the decision to sell the plant and shift production of Ortega foods--which has been produced in Oxnard since the 1940s--was made after a careful review.

"I think it was a business decision," she said. "It was not based on the location of the facility or the performance of the employees."

The sale of the Oxnard plant is the latest chapter in a long-running labor dispute at the facility.

In January 1995, more than 30 mostly seasonal employees at the factory filed sex discrimination complaints against Nabisco, alleging that managers unduly restricted the restroom privileges of female employees.

Some of the assembly line workers said the restrictions were so severe that they were forced to wear diapers on the job and suffered bladder infections.

Last March, lawyers filed a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against the company on behalf of the female employees. Nabisco officials have denied those charges. That lawsuit is scheduled for trial next month in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

After Nabisco announced the sale of the plant in September, lawyers representing the women filed charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that Nabisco was selling the plant in retaliation for the sex discrimination charges. Union representatives filed a similar complaint with a state agency in November.

Nabisco officials have long denied the sex discrimination complaints and have said the retaliation claims are groundless.

Whatever the reason for what has occurred over the past year, local officials say the focus must now turn to finding another employer to take Nestle's place.

Steve Kinney, executive director of the Greater Oxnard Economic Development Corp., said other food processors should be willing to jump at the chance to take over the operation.

"I would think that somebody would be willing to take advantage of an already-trained, assembled work force just dying to get back to work at the same plant," Kinney said. "This is a work force that already knows how to do the work and is willing to walk through the doors tomorrow."

Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said the factory, in the shadow of the 3rd Street bridge in the city's La Colonia barrio, means too much to too many people to just let it sit idle and empty.

Hundreds of farm workers, for instance, work the fields to provide the raw products processed at the plant. And many of the factory workers themselves were lifted out of the fields by the steady employment and good pay offered at the Oxnard cannery.

"That plant has helped raise many families here," Lopez said. "We cannot let it remain dormant. My hope is that there will be some other company, some other bright company, that will take it over."

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