After being an integral part of the town of Leamington for more than a century, the HJ Heinz Corporation will shut its processing plant next June, putting 740 employees out of work and leaving more than 40 local tomato growers wondering what they will be planting come spring.
In 1909, Heinz began making pickles in Leamington and a year later began processing tomatoes into what it came to describe as “Canada’s finest ketchup.” Last February, news that Heinz was being purchased by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital for $28 billion was announced; the deal closed in June.
Heinz is the town’s largest single employer and it seems like every family in town has had a member work for the company at one time or another. That’s why the news of the plant’s closure has caused such a widely felt shock. Not only will the employees and farmers lose their livelihoods, but the effects will be felt by many different sectors in the community and beyond, including seasonal workers, many of them from Mexico and the Caribbean who come each year to earn money to send to their families back home.
John Klassen has worked at Heinz for three-and-a-half years as a millwright helping to maintain the plant’s machinery. Ironically, he had a history in the automotive industry and left it for Heinz, feeling it would provide greater security.
According to Klassen, many others are in the same category, having come to Heinz after being laid off in other sectors of the economy. “So they’re used to this kind of thing happening, and are not as surprised as those who have been around for 20 years or more,” he says.
Employees are as yet unsure what will happen to their benefits and pensions. “Dealing with the unknown is the tough part,” Klassen says. “Once you know, then you can adjust.”
He believes that employees make their own job security, and he has taken advantage of every training opportunity that came his way. He maintains a good attitude throughout this time, saying that Heinz has been a positive experience for him overall.
Dave Epp is a third-generation tomato producer for Heinz who finds himself left in a tough spot.
Modern tomato farming requires specialized equipment that doesn’t come cheap. “Because of this, Heinz and its producers developed a three-year contract security clause, which protected producers from fluctuating demands for tomatoes,” Epp says, explaining, “It was negotiated that, if a drop in production was required, then all producers would share that cut equally. Heinz has told its growers that they will honour the spirit of that contract.”
But he is uncertain how the spirit of the security clause will be upheld. “What is our percentage of a zero percent production requirement?” he wonders.
Yet he also remains positive, claiming that Heinz has been a very good company to have contracted with for so many years. “There was never a question as to if they would honour a contract, or if the money would be there” he says. At a time like this, “It will have to boil down to our attitudes.”
The local ministerial group held an ecumenical prayer service in front of the Heinz factory on Nov. 19, with 17 clergy representing 13 different Leamington congregations. A prayer of lament and thanksgiving written by Vic Winter, pastor of Leamington United Mennonite Church, was distributed beforehand. The last lines of the prayer echo the sentiment of many in Leamington: “God, you are a God of resurrection, of making things new. We cling to that hope in Leamington too.”