Leaving a hole in their town

SUN JOURNAL

Closing: For 35 years, the Life Savers plant in Holland, Mich., had been a symbol of stability and financial security for the town.

March 25, 2002|By Ralph Frammolino | Ralph Frammolino,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOLLAND, Mich. - As factory jobs go, Stan Rewa always thought his was pretty neat. The work is steady and the pay good, and there's the added satisfaction of producing something special, a piece of Americana that has delighted - and hushed - generations of rambunctious kids.

Rewa makes Life Savers.

"We are a part of America," says Rewa, who cooks and flavors the candy at the Life Savers factory here. "I don't know anybody who didn't grow up eating them, to see if you could get a whole roll in your mouth."

The memories will endure, but the factory that turns out 46 billion Life Savers each year won't. Kraft Foods Inc. is closing the plant and moving its operations to Canada, where sugar is half the price and its work force will be nonunion. The move will wipe out 600 union jobs that pay an average of $15.50 an hour.

For 35 years, the Life Savers plant was a symbol of stability and financial security for 115,000 residents living in and around this western Michigan town. Layoffs at factories that make office furniture and car interiors are cyclical in this region. But a job at Life Savers was considered a job for life. Employees lobbied to get their relatives hired, and many families drew two or more Life Savers paychecks.

Brad and Brenda Morris and their extended family have put in a collective 105 years there. "A lot of our lives went into Life Savers," says Brenda Morris, 38, who earns $16 an hour at a spinning machine that forms the candy rings.

"When we got hired there, we thought we were going to retire from there," she says.

To city officials, the closing is a painful lesson in international economics - the story of an all-American city that tried to put out the welcome mat to business, got whipsawed by forces beyond its control and lost a major taxpayer and civic symbol.

"It's been an icon. I can't find a better word to describe it," Mayor Al McGeehan says. "That traditional candy, with a hole in the middle - every one of them for the last 35 years has come from Holland, Michigan."

Life Savers were invented in 1912 by a Cleveland candy maker, Clarence Crane, who named them for the life preservers that ships began stocking after that year's Titanic disaster. His slogan: "For that Stormy Breath."

Crane sold the franchise, and Life Savers evolved. Hard-candy fruit rings were introduced in 1929. The popular five-flavor pack - lemon, lime, orange, pineapple and cherry - debuted in 1935. During World War II, about 23 million boxes of Life Savers were packed into military field rations, allowing GIs to introduce the candy to foreign lands.

But for more than three decades, all of the traditional hard-candy Life Savers sold in the United States have originated in Holland, 170 miles west of Detroit in a community founded 250 years ago by Dutch Protestants and now known for its annual tulip festival. The Holland plant belches steam under a giant replica of a Life Saver that turns the colors of the original fruit flavors at night. It produces 200 million rolls a year. Placed end to end, they would stretch from Los Angeles to New York nearly 10 times over.

Hired out of high school, Stan and Sallie Rewa fell in love working side by side in the lollipop division. Sallie, 38, stayed through the birth of two kids. Stan, 42, found fishing and hunting buddies at work. The Rewas also hoped to retire from the mechanized candy-land.

Stan Rewa's job inspired a certain pride, especially when someone unwrapped a Life Savers lollipop. "When you see someone eating one, you know you made it," said Rewa, who earns $16.43 an hour. "It is a pretty good feeling."

The atmosphere at work began to change a few years ago under former owner Nabisco Holdings Corp. The bosses convened labor-management meetings to talk about cutting costs and waste. Before Nabisco could sell to Kraft Foods, federal antitrust regulators required the divestiture of the Bubble Yum and Life Savers breath mints. They were afraid Kraft, which owns Altoids, might corner the "intense mint market," says a Kraft spokeswoman.

That led to 180 layoffs. Part of the plant was left idle. When Kraft took over in December 2000, it laid off a dozen more workers, then set a goal of reducing production costs from $1.28 per pound to about 95 cents over the next several years. The current rate is $1.18, right on target, say union officials.

Meanwhile, plant executives asked City Hall to help cut an additional $2 million in expenses. The municipal utility offered an annual $200,000 reduction in electric rates. Economic development officials found $1.8 million in savings with a plan to have Life Savers buy liquid sugar from a Michigan mill, rather than ship it by rail from North Dakota and Minnesota.

Then, on Jan. 7, Kraft's corporate headquarters sent out a news release announcing the closing. The same day, workers were called to a meeting.

"I was pretty bummed out about it," says Sallie Rewa. "I mean, nobody wants to have to work forever, but it's a good place to work."

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