Wisconsin dairy workers lose their livelihoods

Wisconsin is the state known as ‘America’s Dairyland’, but this month it ran out of milk.

The Golden Guernsey Dairy of Waukesha, Wisconsin has been operating continuously for the past 83 years. It began as a farmer owned cooperative and within five years it was delivering milk to 20,000 customers. Over the years it’s name and logo has become iconic in Southeastern Wisconsin as a label associated with quality dairy products. This is no small feat in Wisconsin.

Viewers of professional football contests have no doubt seen fans loyal to the Green Bay Packers wearing foam hats designed to resemble a wedge of Swiss cheese on their heads. The quarter designed to honor the state of Wisconsin contained an image of the head of a dairy cow and a wheel of cheese. Since 1940 the auto tags that each vehicle registered in Wisconsin is required to display proudly carry the slogan ‘America’s Dairyland’. So how, with all this tradition and identification of with the dairy industry could one of it’s famed dairy producers, operating successfully since 1930, fail to get milk to its customers?

The answer is simple. Profits.

In September 2011 the plant was acquired by a California outfit known as ‘OpenGate Capital.’ This is the sort of Romneyesque outfit that Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry once blasted as engaging in “vulture capitalism”.

It seems the folks at OpenGate have been sharpening their pencils and checking the bottom line ever since the purchase and despite sales increasing by 20 percent they thought the quickest way to a sure profit was to shut it down, and quickly.

The plant closure was so sudden that Cindy Jensen the Nutrition and Food Services Director of the New Berlin, Wisconsin school district only found out about it on the morning news. She told the local TV station, “We were very fortunate that our truck was already loaded before they actually locked out, so we had milk.”

As the schools were sent scrambling to provide the children with their morning milk the workers were busy organizing a fight-back. Robert Storm was one such worker. He went to the Department of Workforce Development to file a complaint based on the fact that the the employees did not receive the required 60 days notice before they lost their jobs. Instead they reported for work on time and found the gates locked.

OpenGate Capital has given a variety of reasons for the shutdown, including, “poor market conditions.” Gene Gowey, recording secretary of Teamsters Local Union 695 weighed in on the question of OpenGate’s desire to find solutions to their supposed problems. Gowley stated, “OpenGate has never placed any formal demand upon this local union to sit down and open contracts with purposes for renegotiation. Never. In speaking to one media outlet, Gowley said, “I can tell you the only meeting I’ve had with OpenGate was some months back where they requested to change the health plan to a much larger deductible plan.”

The Wisconsin Department of Justice has now also swung into action. They have filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Waukesha County that puts a $2 million lien against Golden Guernsey for unpaid wages.

This series of events left many Wisconsinites scratching their heads. How could this happen.

Perhaps the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a paper that endorsed Scott Walker’s election as Governor summed it up best when they headlined a story – “Market Forces Spurned Golden Guernsey’s closure attorney says.”

Market forces? Let’s understand this properly. Was it a case of supply and demand, or simply a case of demand? Demand for profits on the part of OpenGate Capital that is.

How can the world’s most powerful economy fail to provide milk for it’s school children? The answer is easy. We are living in a so-called ‘market’ economy not a planned economy and when things are not planned, chaos, whims, fads, and most of all, desire, in this case, desire for profits rules the day. In our capitalist economy the owners can simply wake up one morning and with a single padlock shut out 112 workers and then tell their team of lawyers to polish their shoes for a day in court. It’s cheaper than paying the employees who have been performing at their jobs.

It is examples such as this that illustrate the need for a society and an economy organized by and for the working class. Perhaps when that day arrives school children in America’s Dairyland won’t have go to school wondering if milk will be on the cafeteria table when they get there.

Photo: Empty milk jugs.   Collin Anderson/Flickr