You say Leamington, I say worker co-op!

Photo: flickr/Mohammad Jangda

There are two ways to look at the recent announcement that the Leamington Heinz factory will be closing its doors come June of next year.

First, there’s the glass half-empty way. The closure of the factory is resulting in the loss of over 700 full-time jobs and 500 seasonal ones, and the impacts on jobs in the region, while still not certain, will likely be significant. Leamington is after all, a tomato town, as the media is fond of reminding us.

It’s also symptomatic of an economy that is bleeding steady manufacturing jobs. The rate of jobs in manufacturing has steadily declined, and the Leamington Heinz factory is just one in a long line of factories that have faced a shutdown.

So perhaps the glass isn’t exactly half-empty. Maybe it’s more than three quarters empty.

But there is an optimistic way to look at this situation, and it is this -- there is, at least for now, a fully functional ketchup factory in Leamington with a workforce ready to go and a steady supply of product just outside their doorstep. It needs people to invest in it. And I know just the people to do it -- the workers who will be laid off from Heinz.

A worker co-op, or a worker takeover of the factory, is perhaps one of the more viable solutions for the workers in Leamington facing unemployment.

I’m not the first to suggest it -- Rank and File recently posted two great articles suggesting the same thing. A workers support group on Facebook has also indicated that the workers are considering a cooperative model if they can’t find other investors.

Here, a worker co-op still seems like a radical idea to many people, despite the fact that they actually exist across the world and have proven to be an effective source of employment.

The 2004 documentary The Take is probably one of the most prevalent examples of a worker takeover in pop culture. But coops run the gamut from huge, almost corporate style structures to small, two people operations.

In Spain, Mondragon, a worker cooperative formed in 1956 is the seventh largest employer in the country and had over 14 million euro in revenue in 2012. In Argentina -- home to The Take -- worker cooperatives sprung up through the 2000s as a reaction to the increased neoliberalization of the country.

In Canada, the cooperative movement is small, but steady. The Canadian Worker Co-Operative Federation has over 40 members -- everything from coffee shops to construction companies.

What is radical is that should the workers in Leamington successfully organize a cooperative, they would most certainly become one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- in Canada. The potential to set a precedent for worker organization is extraordinary in this case.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that the workers should start a cooperative. It’s quite another thing to actually do it. You need the same plans in place as if you were starting a business. They’ll need to find buyers and market a product that is dominated by one name -- and that name, unfortunately, is Heinz.

We’re also presuming that Heinz won’t try to sell the building or its equipment -- a possibility to be sure.

It will be tough, but not impossible. After all: very often, necessity is the mother of invention. There’s nothing saying that the plant has to go on making ketchup. Even if they do, perhaps there’s an untapped market in artisanal ketchup -- they could prove Malcolm Gladwell wrong.

And should Heinz threaten to sell off the factory, protesting by taking over the factory is a possibility. It would be a more radical option, but if there is any town in the world that could do it, it’s Leamington.

People from the county -- how you refer to anyone living outside of Windsor in Essex County -- have survived wars, tornadoes and yes, labour disruptions, because there is an incredible sense of community there.

What their Facebook groups already prove is that they are not going to let one single corporation dictate the identity of their town. Whether it’s by cooperative or takeover, if the workers get the plant in Leamington it means they still get to control the identity of the community, while in the process democratizing their workplace.

Leamington is a tomato town, whether Heinz is there or not. And that is most definitely something to be optimistic about.

 

Photo: flickr/Mohammad Jangda 

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