FREDONIA - It was a meeting that none of the more than 50 people attending wished was necessary.
Employees of Carriage House, scheduled to be closed by parent company ConAgra in early 2015, came to the Fredonia Opera House on Monday for an informational meeting. U.S. Congressman Tom Reed, County Executive Vince Horrigan and Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe all addressed the gathering to express their concerns and efforts to find a solution to the impending loss of more than 400 jobs.
Reed said he was not pleased with the situation.
"We want to be a resource. I've been talking to ConAgra, just on the phone again this morning with the senior executives, and I stressed to them we need to have a short-, mid- and long-term plan with this facility," Reed stated.
Reed said it was not only the local area that will feel the impact of the closing, but Western New York as well. He added officials would hold ConAgra accountable to make sure the company honors its financial obligations to the workers "on each and every provision in that package."
"We need to make sure that we're putting this facility in the best position to get it operational after this transitioning occurs. ... This is a great opportunity in the sense of the facility, the workforce, the people that we have here working that I think can be presented in a way that hopefully will get a long-term solution in place," Reed said. "We do not want to see this facility in any way stripped of its equipment and its systems that are there. Also for them to work with us to make sure that facility would be available, ... that we could be a voice to put it in a position where it could be marketed and immediately go back to use."
Reed added he wanted input from the workers and union.
Horrigan recounted the closing announcement came two days before a scheduled meeting with ConAgra officials. He added the offices of Reed, Sen. Charles Schumer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have been engaged "to do a couple things going forward to be able to get this facility in the hands of our county development agency where we can market it to new potential buyers."
Horrigan said there are interested parties with whom he has met.
"They also made the comment they're looking for people from this facility, they're expanding and they have job opportunities. ... At the same time there's also some interest in looking at grape processing. Our grape growers are impacted by this as well and there's a lot of activity under way to look at the best way moving forward to be able to keep people working. And if it's not with ConAgra then it's with a new buyer," Horrigan added. "That activity is under way, it will stay under way."
Representatives from Cuomo's office will be present today to help put together a comprehensive package of incentives for a future owner.
"The other side we have, the reality we have to deal with, we want to make sure that ConAgra is willing to make release of that facility under the absolute best conditions so that we can employ, get jobs for as many people as possible," Horrigan said, adding that effort is under way and will continue.
Dean Devita, financial secretary for the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, is based in New York City. He said he really wished he wasn't in Fredonia for the reason he was and called area people the salt of the earth. He thanked Reed for his concern, calling it true on this issue.
"This is a terrible situation, labor is the backbone of this community. I told the congressman in a private meeting this; that the folks in this area, the members of 266, led by Tom Dickerson, are the backbone of this community," Devita stated. "This local up here has done more for this community, I heard more and more stories about how they stood up to other corporations, how they donated their time for causes. This is all going to be lost when this company goes."
Devita cited the negative trickle-down effect the closing will have on the area.
"The company has made a lot of money over the years. I know it's all about business, but these are people. So please, I thank you, but we need more of your help," he added. "Again I really want to thank the congressman, he stood up with me right away and I appreciate that."
Several employees addressed the officials, pointing out homes could be lost along with close family ties if people have to move elsewhere for work. Questions were asked about the closing process, changing the way companies have to be accountable for previous government aid if they do close, and why international companies get away with devastating communities by closing plants for more profits elsewhere.
Tom Dickerson is the president of the union representing Carriage House workers, NFCO 266/SEIU 32BJ. He said it has been a long two-plus years as he tried to let people know the plant was in trouble.
"People here have done the right thing. It's wrong," he said of the closing. "Somebody should have listened, not that it could have been stopped."
Keefe stated ConAgra bought Carriage House just to close it and eliminate some competition, adding Dickerson called him after ConAgra began its Buckner, Ky., expansion to say the end was coming.
While the end for ConAgra in Fredonia appears to be set, there is still work for the union to do for employees.
Informational meetings for active and retired members of NFCO 266/SEIU 32BJ members, employees of Carriage House and formerly Red Wing, will be held today, Wednesday and Thursday at the Cushing Street union hall with union representatives.
"That's to discuss the pension and what's important to them as far as the severance package, if we get one, Dickerson said, adding there will be meetings in April to work on those. Retirees are urged to attend one of the sessions as Dickerson said the closing could affect their pensions as well.
Government officials will continue their efforts to find a new buyer for the facility - something that will be made easier or more difficult - depending on the condition of the plant once ConAgra pulls up stakes and closes it.