Kellogg’s and a Future of Contradictions

by Glen

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So, it’s done, and the effect has been devastating.  Just in time for Christmas, the city of London was informed that the historic Kellogg’s plant will be fully closed down in a year’s time.  It’s not as though London can afford the loss of another major facility; we’ve been losing more than our fair share lately.

No sooner had the announcement been made than the employees themselves become swept up in the various agendas of other groups.  For just one day it would have been good to focus solely on the them and what this will mean to their futures.  The company will move operations to its Belleville plant and keep at it, but the workers … well, they soon won’t be workers.

It is important to note at this point that both the company and its employees in London have left indelible marks on our city.  The Kellogg’s firm agreed to donate huge amounts of cereal products to food banks and agencies across the province.  Most firms who donated 25 years ago desired that their donations be kept within certain boundaries, but Kellogg’s understood that its reach was vast and that its social commitment to other regions could be met through donations from the London plant.  And so, each week, thousands of boxes of cereal and related products moved across the province, all donated, and all the result of a solid corporate responsibility agenda.

Year after year, since the beginning of its presence in London, the Kellogg’s employees donated significant amounts to agencies all over the city.  They gave generously, but also donated expertise and volunteer hours to assist those numerous non-profits.

Our community is now going to lose all that – not just jobs, but the generosity, skills, charitable givings, and food products that so much went in to shaping our community.

It was raised repeatedly yesterday that it was because the workers were unionized that the firm left for greener pastures.  Maybe.  I remember, when I was an MP, when key Kellogg’s officials visited my Ottawa office and assured me that being unionized had nothing to do with their difficulties.  Yet yesterday the anti-unionists came out, reasoning that this was the reason for the closure.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was.  Yes, we could rationalize that this is the modern global reality and that the ball is in the owners’ court, leaving them pretty much free to go where they wish – which is wherever the bottom line can be situated.  Are we honestly wishing to head down this route, knowing that in the end it’s a mug’s game and we have no say in how we build and sustain our communities?  Must we continually blame unions when the fault really lies with the 1% who just can’t abide by the growing success of the middle class?

We are rapidly journeying to a place full of contradictions: people without jobs, jobs without people, jobs disappearing when plenty of labour is available, and employability replacing employment.

For those on the top of the economic pile, work has become commodified – a means to an end.  They think little of work’s value other than its ability to form a product.  But our communities were never established on such a premise.  Kellogg’s was fundamental to our city’s success – at least the old Kellogg’s.  In the modern world the worker has become a problem – a drain on modern business – with the result being a race to the bottom for labour standards, wages, and worker input.  These were the very things labour movements strove for and every one of our communities benefitted as a result.

The separation has been achieved: the dignity of work is no longer essential to profit.  And although a group of very plugged-in people has deigned this to be the new paradigm, they certainly didn’t ask us about it.  Yet we endorsed it by going along, and they knew they had us by the nose.  There are ways to reverse this trend, but it would involve major players being brought to account by the greatest arbitrator in the democratic world – the citizen.  Until we take on that responsibility collectively we will always be out-muscled, out-spent, and just plain out in the cold.

But this is for another day’s debate.  Right now, hundreds of families in London are going through what many are across the country.  Our thoughts are with them.  Just in time for Christmas, they must now plan, not only how to spend their money, but maybe if they should sell the house, take kids out of daycare because they can’t afford it, skip the family vacation, and perhaps have to admit to themselves that they might not be able to send all their children to university.  Many of them will be caring for aging parents – something exceedingly difficult to do if a world of endless wandering, looking for work.

These are our peers – citizens with whom we share a democratic estate.  And as long as we continue to justify our present predicament, the more we will see our neighbours fall on hard times.  The only thing these Kellogg’s workers did wrong was to make an honest living, support various charities, repeatedly assent to wage cuts so that they could maintain their jobs, attempted to keep their families together, and lived their collective lives among us as responsible citizens.  In a proper world – a Mandela world – they would be the jewels of any community.  It’s time to put the responsible citizen at the centre of our new future … and we must learn how to fight for it.