Linda Krugman worked at Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant for nearly 44 years, most recently, packaging mixed spices for meat products made all across the company.
When her job ended April 30, during these waning weeks of the iconic factory, she was replaced by a worker with less seniority.
“It was like a slap in the face,” said Krugman.
It was also a violation of an agreement with the union, officials of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538 said.
To express their solidarity with Krugman — and to protest what they say are broken promises by parent company Kraft Heinz — about 75 people marched in front of the company entrance, 910 Mayer Ave., Thursday afternoon. Some carried signs that read, “Kraft Heinz, uphold your end of the bargain.”
Current employees, retirees and local labor leaders gathered in what union president Doug Leikness admitted was a last-gasp expression of their grief over the loss of the plant that once employed as many as 4,000 people and is now scheduled to be shut down by the end of July.
Leikness said Kraft Heinz is not living up to its agreement to lay off workers with less seniority earlier than longer-term employees. He also accused Kraft Heinz of bargaining in bad faith for ending a chief steward’s job earlier than expected. Leikness told the crowd he called for the rally because a company official vowed to “fight us on everything.”
Longtime Madison radio host John “Sly” Sylvester, who now works at WWHG-FM, Janesville, drew cheers when he called the Kraft Heinz merger that led to the plant shutdown “vulture capitalism.” Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital Management, of Brazil, bought H.J. Heinz in 2013, added Kraft Foods Group in 2015 and then combined the two food giants, paring about half a dozen factories.
“This plant is part of your history,” Sylvester said. “Hold your heads high that for years, you kept this plant going.”
About 110 people are still employed at the Madison plant, most of them producing thin-sliced turkey and ham. That line will close at the end of June, Leikness said, ending nearly 100 years of Oscar Mayer history here.
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For Krugman — whose three daughters earned their college tuition by working summers at Oscar Mayer — losing her job to an employee with only 20 years at the plant was a sign of disrespect.
“That’s like my second home,” she said. “I’d wake up at night and ask, why did they do that to me?”
Kraft Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said the company has followed terms of the closing agreement.
“We fully appreciate that the union president shares our commitment to do what’s right for our employees in Madison,” Mullen said, in an email exchange. “Honoring the terms of this agreement is a top priority so that our employees are treated fairly and with complete regard for their safety.
“We continue to come to the table with solutions to resolve any areas of disagreement and we remain committed to following the established procedures that ensure our employees are treated with the utmost dignity and respect,” Mullen said.
Several former employees said they’re worried they will lose more benefits in the coming years.
Bob Carter, who retired in 2001 after 34 years in maintenance at Oscar Mayer, said retirees took a big blow when the merged company ended its health insurance arrangement. Retirees and spouses had paid $42 a month and a $5 co-pay on medication, he said. “We lost all of that,” Carter said.
Added Don Schroeder, a 35-year Oscar Mayer veteran who also retired in 2001: “We’re afraid down the line, they’re going to go after our pension.”
Kraft Heinz’s Mullen said Thursday the Madison operation, that dates back to 1919, will close in late June or July.
Reich Brothers, a company that specializes in buying closed factories and selling their assets, confirmed in February that it is “a serious contender” for the possible purchase of Madison’s Oscar Mayer property.
In an email exchange earlier this week, co-CEO Adam Reich said his firm is “still engaged in our contractual due diligence period” and is not ready to issue a decision on the site.