Heinz Meanz Mean

Co-operation in the Goulburn Valley

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, on 31.3.12.

The spirit of co-operation lives – in the Goulburn Valley town of Girgarre. And just as the original Rochdale ethic of co-operation was born of the necessity of finding reliable sources of non-adulterated food, so the turn to co-operation in Girgarre has also been driven by necessity. Not of finding safe food, but of safeguarding jobs, businesses and livelihoods.

This necessity materialised when the chill winds of ‘globalisation’ swept through Girgarre (pop: 633) and the surrounding district. Those winds took the form of an announcement in May 2011 by the Heinz Corporation that it was closing its tomato processing plant and laying off 146 workers. Estimates suggest another 450 jobs will disappear through the flow-on effects; and the livelihoods of many tomato growers will also be put at risk.

Globalisation dictates that capital must flow to those places where it can be most profitably invested. In this instance, that ‘law’ required the closure of three Heinz factories in Australia and their relocation to lower cost New Zealand. The tomatoes will be sourced from even lower-cost Thailand. In announcing the closure, Heinz took a side swipe at Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket sector as a major reason why it was no longer profitable to maintain their operations here.

Within weeks of the closure being announced, a coalition of growers, workers and others in the local community began exploring what I would term ‘the Argentinian solution’. In late 2001, as the Argentinian economy was imploding under the burden of an unpayable debt, and workers were being laid off in their tens of thousands, a movement known as the fabricas recuperadas – ‘recovered factories’ – began.

What these workers did was not simply ‘occupy’ their workplaces in pursuit of demands for better wages and conditions. They literally took them over and made them productive as going concerns, run as co-operatives, in order to preserve their own jobs and livelihoods. Even as the economy has recovered, many of these worker co-ops have continued to exist, and some have thrived. The movement has been immortalised in The Take, a 2004 documentary made by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.

The Take - the story of the 'recovered factories' movement in Argentina
The Take – the story of the ‘recovered factories’ movement in Argentina

What’s distinctive about Girgarre is that it’s not just workers involved in the push for the take-over (via purchase) of the Heinz factory and its rebirth as a co-op. It’s the workers in co-operation with the growers; and both in co-operation with the broader community. Remember that the history of co-operation in Australia has been marred by mutual suspicion between producer and consumer co-operatives, translating into a palpable failure to co-operate. This is a conscious attempt to turn a new page in that history.

One of the leading figures in this effort, Tony Webb of University Technology Sydney, told me that:

“The idea grew from just simply replacing Heinz with its out-dated model of competitive relations with suppliers and customers and production of a limited range of internationally branded products for the retail market.  We want to develop new niche markets in the retail and food service sectors for a wider range of agricultural products. The co-op will integrate local warehousing and distribution logistics and a regional food industry training centre on-site, and incorporate sustainable energy, water and waste practices into the production facilities. In short, it aims to build co-operative links between many of the elements of the paddock-to-plate food chain as part of a sustainable regional food hub.”

The breadth of this ambition, and the spirit of co-operation that the initiative has inspired to date, has also crossed party political lines, with the Goulburn Valley Food Action Committee (find it on Facebook!) attracting significant local, national and international interest. Celebrity Chef, Peter Russell Clarke, is helping out with the marketing campaign. Offers of finance to buy and equip the factory have been made.

Meanwhile, Heinz is refusing to sell the site to the co-operative, rejecting their offer of $750,000, three times what the company paid twenty years earlier. Worse, they have, according to Webb and his colleague Les Cameron of the National Food Institute, engaged in a ‘scorched earth’ policy of ‘industrial vandalism’ by stripping the plant of any and all equipment of value, even down to the rat-proof fencing.

But now momentum has been generated and the co-op members have the bit between their teeth. They are looking for a greenfield site, and are launching a campaign for one million Australians to contribute $50 each to become members of a national venture aimed at inspiring – and financing – similar Food Hub ventures elsewhere.

What’s a Food Hub, I hear you ask? More on that next time.

Update, October 2013 – The GV Food Co-op is now trading and inviting supportive members of the public to join as members. To learn more, visit their website: http://www.gvfoodcoop.com.au/