These Jobs Are Going, Boys
Bruce Springsteen’s hometown loses its last major factory, outsourced to Mexico and Brazil.
On June 22, after months of negotiation, Nestlé announced its decision to close its last coffee-making plant in the United States. Production will be outsourced to Mexico and Brazil. By the official close date of November 17, almost all 227 employees in Freehold, New Jersey, will have lost their jobs.
This year would have marked the plant’s 75th anniversary. Over the course of three-quarters of a century, generations of Americans from Freehold have seen their town’s manufacturing rise and fall. It started with the closing of the Karagheusian Rug Mill in 1964. “Foreman says, ‘These jobs are going, boys / and they ain’t coming back to your hometown,’” goes the 1984 Bruce Springsteen hit “My Hometown.” Springsteen grew up in Freehold and his father worked at the mill.
In 1986, 3M Company shut down its plant, eliminating 360 jobs. As the town’s last major manufacturing site, the closing of the Nestlé plant will complete Freehold’s transition to a service-dominated economy.
While Nestlé is heading to Mexico, the workers they currently employ are not. I spoke with them during their shift changes and on their breaks. On thermoplastic picnic tables and flimsy monobloc chairs, these men shared their struggle. “I’ll be 60 in October. Now I gotta go look for another job. It’s depressing,” says Joe. “I can’t say, they always should be here forever. You know, nothing’s forever anymore, I guess, man—the way we live in this country.”
“You can’t say that they haven’t been good to you over the years. You earned a living here and you did really well here,” he says. Joe has worked at the plant for 25 years. A lot of the men were frustrated at the lack of regard for their years of sacrifice. “Birthdays, holidays, everything you could think of, we’re here. You missed it all. And now it’s like, all right, now go to the street. Now find a new job.” One worker sent me a picture of the “Nestlé 2020 Hero” shirts given to employees for their work in providing the nation its coffee during that tumultuous first year of Covid.
Another long-timer, Arthur, echoed Joe’s feeling of betrayal. “We didn’t know about Covid, that we could catch it and die. We had to work or we lost our job. We were considered essential workers… So this is how we get repaid.” Arthur has worked for Nestlé since 1984. The plant job has helped him care for his sick wife at home. His father, brother-in-law, and uncle all earned a living at the plant. “Stockholders are happy, but we are not.”
Michael Wardell has worked for Nestlé for almost 44 years, starting in October 1979. He described the intensity of the 12-hour shifts, often in serious heat. Temperatures at one time reached 123 degrees, he said. Wardell was frustrated about losing his job, but he was more concerned for the younger guys with families and children who are not already grown up like his. As recently as a year ago, new workers hoped they were signing up for a career job.
“There is a complete lack of respect or concern for families or anybody who works here,” Wardell says. “They don’t care, they’re a corporation and they’re Swiss. What part of NAFTA is Switzerland involved in?”
In Freehold, Nestlé produces instant coffee for its Nescafé line. The work at the plant is skilled labor. Beans come in, are roasted, and then flavor content is extracted from the beans and turned into liquid form, which is then freeze- or spray-dried. Most workers follow a seven-days-on, two-days-off schedule, working 12-hour shifts. On a good day, the plant can churn out 80,000 pounds of coffee.
Earlier this year, in the middle of the workday, production was interrupted by a surprise robocall. Workers were told to stop work and go to the local Radisson hotel for a meeting with Nestlé the next morning.
On May 2, corporate management explained to the room full of workers that the Freehold plant needed to make up a deficit of more than $20 million. It’s not clear how this figure was arrived at. Some of the workers guessed it was based on the decreased cost of running a factory in Mexico where wages are lower. “They’re comparing apples and oranges with the pay rate,” said Wardell. The meeting marked the start of a negotiation that many in the community would come to view as a charade. They feel the decision to outsource had been made well in advance.
Nestlé wrote in a statement to The American Conservative, “We’ve made significant investments in Freehold over the years, but the factory's many challenges, specifically its age and limited operational flexibility, would cost tens of millions in additional investments to make it viable.” The statement goes on to note that Nestlé was “grateful for the dialogue with community leaders during this process.”
The community leaders do not necessarily reciprocate. Freehold mayor Kevin Kane, who himself worked at the plant during college, was skeptical of Nestlé’s explanation. “They couldn't put another $10 or 15 million into this plant to get the production up to where they needed it to be to reduce that deficit? They could easily have done that if they wanted to. They just didn’t want to. They had this corporate goal—plan—and they were just working it. There’s probably other plants throughout the country that are in line for the same kind of situation.”
The Teamsters union has made it a point to emphasize that in 2022 Nestlé received $14.5 million in subsidies from the state of New Jersey while simultaneously investing $340 million for a new coffee plant in Veracruz. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador celebrated the opening last year. “This demonstrates the importance of the public and private sectors working together to bring investment to our country,” he said.
Nestlé placed the burden of coming up with a plan to solve the $20 million deficit on the workers themselves. When the union presented management with their plan, it did not reduce costs the full amount, so in June another robocall was sent out ending work for the day and calling employees back for another meeting at the Radisson. On June 22, Nestlé finally informed the coffee makers of Freehold their plant would be shut down.
Steve Gallo, the business administrator for the borough, told me that Nestlé claimed to be open to negotiation but it “didn’t appear as if they had a plan to deal with that, or if they were even interested in dealing with it… Frankly, they seemed to be in a hurry to shut the place down.”
Joe does not blame the union for failing to craft a satisfactory spending cut. “It went downhill over the years. Management, poor decisions. Their failure—can we say it was really our failure? No, man, because you do what your leaders tell you.”
After making the decision to close, Nestlé went back into negotiations with the union, this time to decide severance. The company eventually settled on providing one week of pay and health insurance for every year of service, along with a bonus check for working all the way to the close on November 17.
Nobody I talked to at the plant thought it would be easy to find a similarly high paying blue-collar job. “I can find you lots of jobs that pay $20, but $45 is rarefied atmosphere,” Gallo said. Many of the workers I spoke with had already lost previous jobs to plant closings.
While the 227 plant workers will surely suffer the most, the economic effects of the plant closure are not limited to Nestlé employees. Jeffrey Friedman, the executive director of a local non-profit that works to foster business in downtown Freehold, explained that he expects “ancillary businesses” to suffer as well. Steel shops, tool- and die-makers, and businesses that make packing materials using leftover coffee husks will all take a hit.
Yet Friedman was optimistic about Freehold’s ability to transition to a service economy. “We’re evolving into an entertainment and social destination,” he explained. Mayor Kane shared his hope in the town’s ability to “use this Nestlé situation to bring in something different.” An extensive redevelopment project is currently underway. He also said there have been meetings with county and state officials to try to find the Nestlé workers alternate employment.
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On the first night of my visit, I attended a concert in the “Thursdays ROCK! Summer Concert Series” hosted by Friedman’s nonprofit, with the Joe Baracata Band playing. By the time I got there, a crowd had already gathered, setting up lawn chairs in the square in front of the Hall of Records. It was a glimpse of the town’s ability to adjust. But it reminded me of something another rock star had to say when he performed “My Hometown” at the 2018 Tony Awards:
“Now when it rains in Freehold, when it rains, the moisture in the humid air blankets the whole town with the smell of moist coffee grounds wafting in from the Nescafé plant on the town’s eastern edge. I never cared for coffee, but I loved that smell. It was comforting, it united our town just like our clanging rug mill in a common sensory experience.”
Will post-industrial Freehold give rise to something that is a source of as much identity, purpose, and economic stability as the soon to be abandoned coffee plant that Bruce Springsteen remembers?