Not With a Bang But a Whimper—Oreo Leaves Chicago Holding the Bag

Marilyn Katz

The United States lost 5 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2014 (Mike Mozart / Flickr)

For those still wondering why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are so popular, one needs look no further than Chicago’s West Side, where, as the Chicago Tribune reported recently, the last American-made Oreo rolled off the production line, as the cookie and 600 good-paying jobs left for their new home in Salinas, Mexico.

It’s not simply the fact that 600 workers, most of whom were African American or Latino, lost their jobs and their ability to support their families and pay their rent, mortgages and taxes. It’s also that the organizations these workers had put their faith in — the company, the union, their government­ — did nothing to prevent their catastrophe.

I first wrote for In These Times about the impending exodus in July 2015, after the corporate board of Mondolez International (the food conglomerate based in Illinois that has Nabisco in its portfolio) approved CEO Irene Rosenfeld’s plan to relocate the plant to Mexico, for cost savings, and rewarded her by raising her total compensation from $14 million to $21 million a year.

I had just read and written about Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald who, when the company he founded — Sears — teetered on bankruptcy, used more than $20 million of his own money to save it and the thousands of jobs it supplied. A far cry, I thought, from the venality of current corporate leadership, more interested in squeezing another bit of profit than the well-being of its workers.

Activist that I am, I made calls and wrote that story in hopes that someone — the aldermen, the mayor, the union, our congressional delegation — would at least cry foul or take some action to counter a move that, like so many others, has deprived Americans of income, jobs and hope.

I called the union. Silence. I shared the article with every public official I know. Silence. Tragically, of all the nation’s would-be political leaders, it was only Trump who took up the Oreo issue, and then, only to fuel his cruel brand of xenophobia and racism.

In contrast, within a few days, more than 200,000 people had reposted and shared the article, and some even signed a pledge on Change​.Org to boycott Oreos. The leaders of the union, our city and our nation may not have been incensed, but others were. 

Of course it wasn’t simply Oreos about which people were upset. The iconic nature of Oreos — their totally American origins, their presence in every home, the nostalgia — provided a graspable symbol of and resistance to the outsourcing of jobs. Grasping or protesting the off-shoring of farm equipment, computer chips or washing machines may be hard, but cookies we can do.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the United States lost 5 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2014. Closer to home, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning reported that between 2003 and 2013, manufacturing jobs in Chicago’s suburbs fell by 18 percent to 292,000, while such positions in Chicago fell 33 percent to 64,439.

Some economists say the loss of manufacturing jobs can be traced to the greater productivity of workers, aided by automation and computers (though not all agree). Others say the loss is due to trade policy or currency manipulation. Whatever the reason, the two things people know are that factory closings and job losses are not the act of God but of individuals, and that the government people believed would protect them has failed to do so.

As for Nabisco, the timing of Rosenfeld’s decision was no accident. In 1993, Illinois provided Nabisco with $30 million in enterprise zone benefits. Chicago provided another $60 million in tax increment financing, with the company’s obligations to the city ending in 2016. Having reaped the benefits of Chicago, and despite running a profitable outfit, Rosenfeld and her board bid those who supported and enriched the company, adieu.

As has been evident throughout this campaign year, a sense of betrayal by the ruling elites (corporate and government alike) is what denied Jeb Bush a chance at the GOP nomination and that impeded Hillary Clinton’s waltz to the nomination. The conviction that there must be a better way fuels the campaigns of Sanders as well as Trump. And it has fueled the sense of despair that is behind the uptick in violence that plagues Chicago’s and the nation’s poorest communities.

As the much documented income inequality in our city and nation grows we increasingly hear people say they believe that they have little chance for a better life — that the game is fixed. To heal our city, to heal our nation, it’s time to change the rules of the game.

Marilyn Katz is a writer, consultant, public policy communications strategist and long-time political activist. She is president of MK Communications, a partner in Democracy Partners and a founder and co-chair of the newly formed Chicago Women Take Action.
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