EDITORIAL: Community deserves straight talk from Kraft

The importance of Kraft Frozen Foods to the local economy is undisputed. The potato plant in Ontario is one of Malheur County’s largest employers. It’s a sizable taxpayer. Local businesses service and supply the industrial complex. That’s why the news last week of a major change in local plant operations was startling.

At this hour, it’s hard to know what to make of what Kraft Heinz is doing in Ontario. Employees and their union report that the plant is being reorganized, with new jobs created, old jobs modified, and some jobs eliminated. Workers by early this week were to “bid” for a job. In essence, they apparently have to apply to get or keep a job. The impact should emerge clearly in the coming days.

The worst impact would be the loss of workers. Employees might opt to do something different than move to a new job. Some might go for the “voluntary layoff” – the term Kraft Heinz uses to describe what’s coming. And some employees may not have the skills required to get one of those reconfigured posts.

That means the community has no idea — yet – how many people might be out of work at Kraft Frozen Foods. The union representing the workers isn’t certain, saying the number could be up to 50. The company itself is staying mum.

And that’s wrong. The parent company relied on a corporate spokesman in Pittsburgh to speak for what was happening in Ontario. Yet Michael Mullen, a senior vice president, did precious little speaking. He put out a five-sentence statement that was of little aid to a community wondering what was happening. The statement brought no clarity.

He said, for instance, no current workers “are being laid off.” Then he said “some positions will be eliminated through voluntary layoffs.” When pressed for facts, Mullen gave a corporate shrug. He said what was happening in Ontario was a “non-story.” He labeled as “completely inaccurate” statements that included information he had provided.

Kraft Heinz sells $26 billion worth of peanuts, Jell-O and other consumer goods. Its Ontario operation supports the Ore-Ida brand of potato products. Company executives haven’t been satisfied with Kraft’s performance. “There’s no question that our financial performance in 2017 did not reflect our progress or potential,” the company CEO said earlier this year.

Across the country, corporations continue to drive for efficiencies and increase profits. No one should have an issue with that.

But these steps aren’t private matters of no concern to the public. The lives of every worker at Kraft is affected. Their families are too. State employment officials, working with little help from Kraft, scheduled meetings for workers to know their options. They also scheduled a job fair so any worker leaving Kraft will know there are options – and plenty of eager employers in the area.

Meantime, Kraft should rethink its strategy for dealing with our community. A little more straight talk and a little less corporate two-stepping likely would have avoided the collective shudder that went through town on the initial but false report that 130 people were losing their jobs. We offered Kraft Heinz a chance to address these issues, but it declined.

In this circumstance, Kraft behaved poorly. Maybe it doesn’t sell enough Heinz ketchup in the area to care much what local people think. But as a community, we care about every job and every person left with uncertainty because of clumsy corporate conduct.