By KALEA HALL
A four-vote difference on a labor contract could have meant a new facility for Tamarkin workers — and a chance to keep their jobs.
Instead, Giant Eagle, the retail support center’s parent company, decided to cease operations at Tamarkin this spring.
This means about 200 local jobs will be lost and another long-standing Mahoning Valley operation will be gone.
“I am very disappointed that these high-paying jobs are leaving our community,” U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan said in a statement.
Workers will vote today on the severance package the company has offered. The package includes a continuation of health care to a certain amount and pay dependent on the amount of time worked at the company. For example, 20 years translates to 20 weeks of pay, the union said. Giant Eagle would not comment on the severance package. The union said if the package is accepted the workers could stay in the plant through June.
Hoping to avoid the facility’s closing, Ryan, of Howland, D-13th, urged the union and the company to end a labor dispute in December. By February, after the contract was voted down twice by the 165 members of Teamsters Local 377, the company decided to move on.
The company said Tuesday that nothing has changed from its original decision to relocate operations to a third-party company.
“I wish things would have turned out differently. My heart goes out to the families that have been hurt by this decision,” Ryan said.
The Tamarkin Co., Giant Eagle’s retail support center for frozen foods that supplies 427 retail locations, has deep roots in the Mahoning Valley. The Tamarkin Grocery Co. came first, and the 1950s brought the Tamarkin Co.’s first $1 million wholesale grocery warehouse on North Meridian Road.
In the next decade, company leaders brought a new, $2 million facility to Austintown. Ben Tamarkin was the president and Jack Tamarkin was executive president of the company that supplied groceries within a 50-mile radius to Valu King grocery stores and other stores.
The Valu King name grew rapidly with the 45th location open by 1976. Expansion at the warehouse continued from the late 1970s into the 1980s.
Labor disputes are ingrained in the Tamarkin history, however. Vindicator files show a strike in 1960 and many others in decades that followed.
By 1981, the plant started to change. Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle bought Tamarkin, and by 1982, the warehouse stopped distributing nonperishable items and started to handle only produce, dairy products and frozen foods. In 1984, small grocers stopped receiving delivery services from the wholesaler.
Bob James, 63, of Poland worked at Tamarkin from 1974 to 2014. He was three months shy of a 40-year term with the company when he retired.
James, who said he always was mechanically inclined, took a job at Tamarkin as a mechanic with Jack Tamarkin as his boss.
After Giant Eagle took on the company, Jack Tamarkin stayed at the warehouse and made sure the workers were supported.
“The last one to leave the company was Jack,” James said. “He felt an obligation to the guys.”
After the shift from Tamarkin-owned to Giant Eagle-owned, James said the plant changed.
“It was tough to change over because Jack Tamarkin knew who you were,” he said. “You treated him right and he treated you right.”
The change may have been difficult to get used to, but the workers were happy to have jobs.
James and a group of others who had been with the company for decades started to have concerns over what would happen when the contract was up in May 2015.
“There were rumblings that [the company] wanted the union out of the pension fund,” James said. “There were a great many of us that had enough time to retire and retired because we knew the company wanted to pull that pension fund.”
Many of the workers believed the company wanted the plant to close. James was shocked, though, when the closure was made official in February.
“It is heartbreaking,” he said. “You spend 40 years out there and to see them close up ... I was heartbroken.”
James doesn’t think the option to send the work at the Victoria Road plant to a third-party company in Solon is a better one for Giant Eagle.
“Is it better for you to take your clothes to the laundromat instead of doing it yourself?” James said. “They love to have control, and they are going to give up that control.”
From Giant Eagle’s standpoint, the offerings it gave to the union were generous. The contract included the replacement of the union’s pension fund with a 401K benefit plan, wage increases each year of the proposed four-year agreement, maintained health care benefits and other items.
“It did contain some modest productivity improvements that are in place at similar distribution facilities, but it also offered to build a new facility in the Youngstown area,” said Dan Donovan, marketing manager of corporate communications for Giant Eagle.
The 165 employees who are part of Teamsters Local 377 voted the contract down once in October and again in December. The last vote was just shy of four votes to accept the deal.
A large concern was the discontinued use of the pension fund. That switch led to a loss for employees. Under the pension-fund plan, the company contributed $7 an hour, said Ralph “Sam” Cook, Teamsters Local 377 secretary treasurer. But the 401K plan called for a dramatic decrease because just 4 percent of the worker’s gross would be contributed under the 401K plan, he said.
Giant Eagle has said the labor dispute and other factors are what led to the decision to cease operations here. On Tuesday, Giant Eagle did not go into further detail on what other factors attributed to the decision to close the plant.
The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber has worked with the company since the end of 2013 on an opportunity to retain and grow its presence here.
“We were extremely disappointed to hear of the outcome,” said Sarah Boyarko, vice president of economic development for the chamber.
Cook said the contract would pass if workers were given a third vote. His concern is not just for the workers, but for their families. Some of the workers, including 32 drivers, five maintenance workers and five mechanics, will have other opportunities for work, Cook said. However, Giant Eagle said it is unknown if any employees will be kept to work within the company.
“Of course I am concerned about the closing,” said Jim Davis, Austintown Township trustee. “That is 200 families in our local communities [affected].”
The Mahoning County commissioners sent a letter to the company to inform leaders of some incentives available to build a new warehouse.
The letter stated that “we appreciate the length of time you have been here and we want you to stay,” said Anthony Traficanti, chairman of the commissioners.
Traficanti said he has received numerous phone calls from workers scared they are losing their jobs. He said he hasn’t received a response from the company.
“It is just worrisome,” he said. “My concern, and our concern, is the 200 people who will lose their jobs.”