Hundreds attend rally supporting Carriage House workers

Chants of “If you care, please be fair,” and “The people united will never be defeated,” filled downtown Fredonia Thursday in an attempt to save hundreds of local jobs from leaving the area.

Several hundred people descended upon Barker Common to show ConAgra, the owner of the soon to be shuttered Carriage House, they are not willing to let the local facilities become empty shells. In addition to members and officers of the SEIU Local 266 NCFO union that represents workers there, the community rally drew elected officials from all levels of government, as well as various Buffalo media outlets.

“The company and the union had the same goal: To make Red Wing, Carriage House, one of the best employers in Chautauqua County. That all ended when ConAgra bought Ralcorp Holdings (the previous owner),” said Tom Dickerson, president of Local 266 and an employee for 32 years. “Several requests for meetings with ConAgra from the union and elected representatives were unanswered and denied. The only meeting the union had with ConAgra was on March 19, when several ConAgra officials showed up with their armed guards telling about 450 people they were losing their jobs (by early next year).”

Two of those employees are Mike and Crystal Jagoda of Sherman, a couple that may be forced to leave the area in search of new jobs even though they just built a new home a few years ago.

“ConAgra doesn’t realize the ripple effects of their decision; they are affecting the entire area and devastating a whole community,” Crystal said. “They told us our jobs were secure when they first took over Carriage House (in 2012). They say they’re for the community. Well, let’s see that now.”

The goal of the rally was to send ConAgra a three-pronged message, which is to maintain some portion of its operations in the local area, provide a fair severance package to the employees that have given their lives to Carriage House and allow the sale of the facilities without any strings attached.

While the “stupid” decision by ConAgra to leave appears final, officials are doing everything in their power to bring in a prospective buyer, according to Sam Hoyt, senior vice president for regional economic development at the Empire State Development Corp. He announced at the rally that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is setting aside $50,000 to hire a national consultant to do an analysis of the Carriage House facilities in Dunkirk and Fredonia and use that information to develop a strategy to market them across the country.

“Our governor believes our union workforce is what sustains a community and creates the middle class, and we can’t turn our back on them,” Hoyt said. “The governor stands by you and he will be with you every step of the way.”

County Executive Vince Horrigan added two site selectors have already asked about the facilities, as well as one local company that toured them and will look into how it can be part of the agri-business industry.

“It’s on the national radar right now,” he told the audience. “We’re going to have you getting back to work. We’re not looking at ConAgra and saying, ‘Why did you leave?’ We’re looking forward and saying, ‘Bye-bye!’ We’re getting a new company in there.”

State Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, drove to the rally from Albany as soon as the Assembly’s session ended earlier than expected.

“This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s all hands on deck,” he said.

State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, could not join Goodell since the Senate session went longer than the Assembly’s. She sent a representative, Kevin Muldowney, to read a letter at the rally.

“I have been coordinating with federal, state and local officials to help alleviate the situation. We are aggressively pursuing every possible avenue to find prospective buyers who will bring in new jobs and opportunities for our families,” Young wrote.

Jacqueline Chiarot represented U.S. Rep. Tom Reed at the rally and said Reed continues to be behind the Carriage House workforce “from the beginning to the end,” including getting a new company into the plant and getting employees a fair severance package.

After the rally, people flocked to a large copy of a letter that will be sent to Colleen Batcheler, executive vice president of ConAgra and graduate of SUNY Fredonia. Around 200 signatures were put on the letter, which asks Batcheler to “negotiate a fair transition agreement that offers dignity and respect to your employees and new opportunities to our community.”

Congressional hopeful Martha Robertson, newly appointed County Industrial Development Agency Executive Director Kevin Sanvidge (a Fredonia resident), Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe and Dunkirk Mayor Anthony J. Dolce also attended the rally, among other officials.

Dickerson said union leaders will meet with ConAgra representatives Tuesday and Wednesday to learn what the company will give to its workers as they leave their jobs.

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