DUNKIRK - More than 400 people will be looking for work after ConAgra announced it will be closing its Fredonia and Dunkirk facilities, with February as the projected date when the plants close completely.
While the closing of ConAgra's local facilities might have caught some employees, area residents and elected officials by surprise, not everybody was caught off guard by the announcement.
Tom Dickerson is the president of SEIU Local 266 NCFO, which represents the union workers at the Fredonia and Dunkirk facilities.
Pictured above is the Carriage House, owned by ConAgra, on Newton Street in the village of Fredonia.
"I've been watching this place. About September we said, 'something's not right, they're going to shut us down.' We're watching things, and doing everything and we've never met ConAgra until today. Never met them once.
"How I found out was a fluke. They sent a letter to our pension fund. Our president called me and said 'hey, they're not funding it after this date.'
I said it's like I've been saying, I tried to warn people but I had no proof.
Dickerson said ConAgra will notify workers as their 90 days left to work comes up, eliminating the need to go through the states WARN site.
"They're going to phase this plant out. When one department is done they take the equipment and they ship it to Buckner," Dickerson added. "I'll be trying to get these guys a severance package and some insurance, things like that. You've got 425 people, average age 47.
"I think they said around October will be the first of it, but they'll be out of here by the end of next February. There will only be a handful of people when that happens."
Dickerson said the workers were "devastated."
"I went in there early this morning to let the people know what's going on because I didn't want them to walk into a situation where they were going to get kicked ... because they had no idea. Thank God for that fluke letter or we all would have. I went in and started telling people, they were devastated, their whole lives change. People in their late '40s and late '50s, they can't retire. They'll all be going on welfare.
More than 60 percent of ConAgra's plants are unionized, according to Dickerson, who added the closing will leave one ConAgra facility in New York state, Sugar Cakes in Tonawanda, a cookie plant.
Dickerson said ConAgra told workers the plant was closing due to low volume and the ability to produce products better at other places.
"They bought us to shut us down. They didn't put any money into the plant," he added.
Daniel Hare, the Sr. Director Communication & External Relations for ConAgra, issued the following statement.
"We informed employees that we will end production in the Fredonia plant at the end of February of 2015 and officially close the plant in May of 2015. The transition will begin this summer and will occur in phases and eventually impact approximately 425 jobs.
"The food will be made at other plants in ConAgra Foods that have similar capabilities and available capacity, including Buckner, Kentucky, Sylvester, Georgia and Streator, Illinois. Transition of these products will allow the company to operate more effectively and efficiently.
"We are committed to open, candid communication with employees and it is our goal to provide employees with as much information as we can in a timely manner."
Red Wing was founded in 1912 as a subsidiary of the Cudahy Packing Company. For the first six years the company was known as The Puritan Food Products Co. Inc. and it was The Red Wing Co. Inc. for the next 83 years. In 1961 the Steele family of Fredonia bought out Cudahy's interest in Red Wing and the company continued to prosper, filling the village with tomato and grape aromas. In 1976 the Steele family sold the company to Rank, Hovis and McDougall Ltd. of England. In 1990, Red Wing bought the former Kraft plant on Talcott Street in Dunkirk. In 1992, RHM was acquired by another British firm, Tomkins PLC. By July 2000, Tompkins was selling to Ralcorp Holdings Inc., and in January 2013 all of Ralcorp, which included the Dunkirk and Fredonia Carriage House facilities, along with Petri's in Silver Creek, was purchased by ConAgra.
ConAgra's facility in Fredonia is currently the largest private employer in the village and one of the top 25 in Chautauqua County.