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16 years later, it's crunch time again at Nabisco plant

Monday, July 13, 1998

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A group of East End activists and labor union members are hoping they can make enough street noise to persuade a huge multinational corporation to keep open a small Pittsburgh factory.

Sound like folly?

It may be, but the tactic has worked before -- with the same union and some of the same neighborhood leaders fighting to save the same plant.

The first time around, in 1982 and 1983, an organization of 30 labor, civic and religious groups -- with a roster ranging from the Tri-State Conference on Steel to St. Mary Church - persuaded Nabisco-Standard Brands to back off plans to close its Pittsburgh cookie, cracker and biscuit factory.

Busloads of people showed up at rallies and thousands of people signed cards pledging to boycott Nabisco products if the company didn't change its mind. City Council loudly debated whether the government's power of eminent domain could be used to take over the bakery, a fixture in East Liberty since 1919.

The boycott campaign got a huge boost when the late Mayor Dick Caliguiri told a rally of 1,200 supporters at the Reizenstein Middle School that he loved Nabisco's cookies and crackers but would never let another one pass his lips if the plant closed. Cheers could be heard across the street at the bakery.

"That's when it took off," said Aggie Brose, a community activist in the city's East End who was president of the first Save Nabisco Action Coalition. "Mayor Caliguiri without a doubt put it off the scale."

Late in 1982, when Nabisco said it wanted to shut the plant and lay off 650 workers, was a time of turmoil in Pittsburgh. The steel industry was starting to crumble, desperately seeking concessions from its unionized workers to keep mills open.

A wave of plant closings that would decimate steel towns all through Pittsburgh's industrial valleys had started but not yet finished. U.S. Steel that year had closed an open hearth shop in Homestead and its Carrie Furnace complex in Rankin. Labor was aroused and activists in Pittsburgh were looking for ways to fight back.

"It was really a battle that was inspirational to a lot of people in the region," said Barney Oursler, co-director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee and a veteran of those struggles. "It was the first successful fight against a closing."

Charles McCollester, a union leader at Union Switch and Signal in 1982 who is now on the labor studies faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said Nabisco was an easy target for politicians because it was a consumer products company - and thus vulnerable to boycotts - and because it wasn't Pittsburgh based. U.S. Steel, on the other hand, was Pittsburgh-based and its customers were not supermarket shoppers.

But David Matter, the Oxford Development Co. president who was Caliguiri's top aide then, disagreed. Matter said the issue was simply trying to save a Pittsburgh landmark everyone knew by its rich, sweet scent.

"If you lived in Pittsburgh and particularly if you lived in the East End you could smell the aroma of the cookies and biscuits being baked," Matter said. "It would have been a tragedy."

Then councilman Ben Woods made that argument in 1982 during heated debate with his colleagues over saving the Nabisco factory. "It's the only plant in this city that smells good," he said.

In December, 1983, three months after Nabisco said it would close the plant because of system-wide overcapacity, the company backed down. Claude Hampton, then president of the company's biscuit division, called Caliguiri and said the closing was indefinitely suspended. Matter said the decision came as a result of behind-the-scenes that included personal contact between the mayor and Hampton and offers of an assistance package.

A year later the Nabisco plant was running smoothly, with new equipment and with work rule changes negotiated with the plant's union, the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers. It has churned out baked goods ever since.

"Pittsburgh got organized, mobilized and other cities didn't. So they said, 'Let's leave Pittsburgh alone,' " recalled City Council member Jim Ferlo, then a neighborhood activist who played a leadership role in SNAC.

Brose, the SNAC president and neighborhood organizer, remembers the spark for the first campaign came from Leon Swimmer, a bakery worker who asked the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., a nonprofit civic group, to get involved.

"It worked," the now-retired Swimmer said. "The Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. took a vote and agreed to help. The union, the workers at the Nabisco plant and political figures got involved. We got on national TV. We made a big noise."

Can it work again? Brose says it can. The neighborhood concerns are the same - saving jobs that pay about $16 an hour and keeping a large and well-maintained factory building from turning into an eyesore.

"This is just good business. We're putting our voices out there as Pittsburgh to say we're concerned," Brose said. "Are we on the cutting block again? If so, that's not acceptable. We don't want an empty building in the East End."

Donald Ladov, at attorney with Cohen & Grigsby, Downtown, and a specialist in labor and employment law, notes that the economy is much changed from 1982. He said it's more difficult today to exert local pressure on a company in a global marketplace, but not impossible. Business decisions are still made by people who can be influenced, he said.

"I represent presidents of companies who make these decisions every day and I know they can be touched by reasons that are quite human," Ladov said. "There is nothing to lose."

Ferlo, who is supporting the resurgence of SNAC, said the new battle is different than 1982 because it's being waged before a formal shutdown announcement is made and because the approach includes both community activism and offers of economic incentives or assistance.

"I think we can make a good strong case to Nabisco. If they're looking at long-range, future production, we can be a player bar none," Ferlo said. "At the same time, don't think you're going to close this plant and ship in products and have them well-received."

Nabisco spokesman Hank Sandbach says that the company has already been flooded with letters and calls of concern from Pittsburgh politicians, including Mayor Murphy, Councilman Bob O'Connor and Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida. Murphy spokeswoman Peg McCormick Barron said the mayor has laid out an array of available incentives.

Sandbach, however, will only say that Nabisco, whose parent is RJR Nabisco Holdings, will close an unidentified number of facilities and lay off about 3,100 workers, with specifics to come later. The plan is to save enough money to increase advertising for cookie and cracker products whose sales have slumped.

The Pittsburgh workers feel vulnerable because their plant, which takes up a city block and is several stories high, is one of the oldest and smallest in Nabisco's international stable of bakeries.

Myron Rodzay, president of Bakery Workers local 12, has already prepared boycott pledge cards that were first distributed Friday night at a SNAC rally sponsored by the East End Neighborhood Forum. But he hopes they won't be used.

Rodzay said the Local 12 works well with Nabisco management in Pittsburgh and has found ways to cut costs at the bakery by $650,000 in the first six months of this year.

The plant, he said, won a corporate President's Cup award from Nabisco last year, and is the company's leading maker of Ritz crackers in terms of cost and quality. He said its distribution center also leads others in efficiency.

"We're not fighting the company. We all have the same goals," Rodzay said, adding that managers would be hurt along with bakery workers if the plant were to close. "The unemployment line shows no partiality."

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