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Bad news day at Nabisco: Wistfulness, anger, scorn

Wednesday, August 12, 1998

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mary Blye can handle the same old same old. She has been filling Ritz Bits with cheese for nine of her 30 years at Nabisco. What she couldn't take yesterday morning was another minute of meeting.

Glenn Gibson worked at the Nabisco plant for 28 years -- "Now, we will buy not one Nabisco product, and I hope everyone else boycotts them." (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

She was one of about 10 women who walked out of a vociferous roomful of fellow employees at the East Liberty plant.

"They told us about how the corporation made the decision to close the plant," she said of the five corporate executives who sat at the head table. "Well, we already knew the plant was closing. What we wanted to know was about our pensions. They said they'd let us know."

Company officials met with their 350 Pittsburgh employees merely to make things, well, official. The employees expected more.

"It was a bad meeting," said Bill Seifert, a 54-year Nabisco veteran who has never called in sick and walks to work from his home in Point Breeze. He loves Nabisco, owns stock in the company and looked pleasant in spite of his disappointment. Seifert, 70, was one of several workers who emerged onto the sidewalk in front of the Penn Avenue plant about 8 a.m. They asked each other why the company would call a meeting without being prepared to answer their most burning questions. "They said they need to talk to the unions," Seifert said.

Nabisco employees have made cookies and crackers at the East Liberty plant since 1919. Late in June, the company sailed its Chips Ahoy line to Chicago -- a clue of foreboding for Pittsburgh workers. Nabisco had announced a "restructuring and streamlining" plan in June without naming the Pittsburgh plant as a casualty.

  Related article:

Activists plan giant Nabisco boycott


The local closing is part of a bigger-picture plan to save $100 million, which the company said it will plug into advertising. James Kilts, who took the helm at Nabisco in January, had been hailed by analysts as having helped turn the Kraft Foods division of the Philip Morris Co. around.

Those facing unemployment have a different take on it. Ed Puccio, a 39-year veteran of the Nabisco plant, said Kilts "moves from one company to another, ruining lives."

The June decision at Nabisco, to "improve its competitive position and enhance future growth," as its announcement read, was a response to competition, primarily from Keebler. Earnings at Nabisco dropped last year from $405 million to $103 million.

Earlier, Nabisco had cut back its advertising. In 1994, it spent $107 million pitching crackers and cookies; last year, it spent $72 million. Kilts plans to enhance the ad budget by one-third.

The corporate actions to bolster advertising and sales at the expense of loyal employees are a particular affront, said Glenn Gibson, because the company's cuts several years ago were made to save money. The sidewalk conversation yesterday concluded those savings made rich men richer.

"Of course, when you cut advertising you're going to drop off" to competitors, Gibson said. "Why did they do it in the first place? That's what we'd like to know."

Those decisions were made under the previous CEO, James Postl.

The even-tempered Seifert described the meeting as "ugly, almost explosive." His own wistfulness indicated a feeling of betrayal: "I am very sad. I have always been proud of Nabisco."

In contrast, Gibson arrived angry. He carried a blue Giant Eagle shopping bag filled with Nabisco-made products -- a box of Premium Saltines, a jar of A-1 sauce, a jar of Grey Poupon mustard and a box of Chips Ahoy cookies.

He got up during the meeting and threw them into a trash can.

"My allegiance before was very strong," he said later, on the sidewalk. "Every person in my family bought Nabisco products because I worked there. Now, we will buy not one Nabisco product, and I hope everyone else boycotts them, too.

"This is about corporate greed and has nothing to do with this factory or these workers or this city."

In fact, when Nabisco announced the closing of its Pittsburgh plant, the workers were tied with two other plants for first place in the President's Cup competition. Nabisco gives the President's Cup to its top-performing plant each year. Pittsburgh won it last in 1987.

"We work well here, we always have, and we can still work well here," Gibson said. "The public is made to think there's something wrong with this building, but this is a great building."

City officials have said they would look for another food company to occupy the seven-story, red-brick plant from which once wafted the deliciously heavy scent of cookies over East Liberty and Shadyside.

Production will be phased out over the fall, with closing expected in late November.

Gibson's anger was crisp and brittle, the cinch-mouthed pain of rejection. He's a 28-year Nabisco man and, when asked where he works, said defiantly, "I have worked in every department in this building."

Puccio, 62, said the closing benefited him. He is retiring and will add severance to his nest egg. "It's these poor young guys that're left hanging. They stuck it to them," he said.

Shoving a finger at Seifert and calling him a "diplomat," Puccio set his face and said, "Let me tell you something. This corporate greed around the nation has got to stop. They may save millions, but how much is (Kilts) going to walk away with, huh? If that's the American way, we have to change the American way."

Last year's report showed Postl earned $748,800 while at Nabisco's helm.

Seifert said he was "going to get around to retiring one of these days." He has stayed on because the benefits are good, and his wife has emphysema.

A rally of protest outside the plant is being planned for Monday, he said. The next day, "we're taking a busload up to Parsippany, N.J." for a rally at Nabisco headquarters.

"You never know what might happen." He smiled suddenly. "You know, a protest, a good protest, if lots of people come out to support us, maybe. ... They're scared of boycotts, the company is. You know, it may not be over."

Beside his co-workers, Seifert's hope seemed almost fey.

Said Gibson: "They gave us today off with pay. Nice of them. And we'll be back here tomorrow, and of course our hearts will really be in it."

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