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Essay: Heeding the Wiener Whistle

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Lynn Friedman, flickr
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Oscar Mayer Weinermobile

For almost a hundred years, the descendants of a German immigrant owned the meat company he founded in Chicago in 1904. But the Oscar Mayer company was eventually sold – several times – and is now owned by Kraft Heinz. Its headquarters are currently in Madison. But as Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank notes, that, too, will soon change.

It’s been a tough time for employment at Wisconsin’s signature industries, with the real possibility that more is to come. The latest bombshell was lobbed when it was announced that the Oscar Meyer plant is Madison will close. That will end a more than century-long presence in the state and about 1,000 jobs, including, I presume, the staff of the Weinermobile -- the hot-dog-on-wheels gets Iowa plates now, as Meyer’s production is being moved to that state.

That the Madison plant was in jeopardy became clear back in March, when it was announced that a deal had been engineered to combine Kraft Foods, which owns Oscar Meyer, and the H.J., Heinz Co., of mustard fame. Public statements from the two firms made it quite clear that they would find ways to consolidate operations, which meant there was a big bull’s eye on the back of the Madison plant. One hopes that the next day, Wisconsin economic development officials were on the phone to Heinz and Kraft.

Certainly, Iowa offered government assistance to Heinz and Kraft even as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was constantly campaigning in that state during his now-abandoned presidential run. Who did or did not do what to try to keep Oscar has engendered considerable snipping between local officials in Madison and Dane County, mostly Democrats, and Republican Walker, who has made economic development a lynchpin of his political persona. We will probably never know, and it really makes no difference now, as the hot dog plant is gone. But the situation can teach the state ways to minimize the possibility of something similar happening in the future.

And something similar might, soon. In printing, the multi-state, Pewaukee-based Quad/Graphics company is undergoing a downsizing that could threaten thousands of jobs in Wisconsin. In brewing, SABMiller, the parent of Milwaukee’s last remaining major brewery, is about to be purchased by its larger rival, Anheuser-Busch InBev. One hopes that state officials are on the phones now with executives of those companies rather than waiting until after decisions about future employments are made. Easy to overlook in all of this was news from another long-time Wisconsin economic mainstay, the S.C. Johnson Co., in Racine.

It is moving 175 jobs, mostly in sales and marketing, to Chicago to tap that city’s talent pool for such workers. Orion Energy Systems Inc., in Manitowoc, has also recently announced it was opening an office in Chicago to look for such workers. Milwaukee is closer to Racine and Manitowoc than is Chicago, but apparently is not attractive enough to entice the Orion and S.C. Johnson employment. Indeed, a study is underway into what it would take to extend Chicago’s METRA commuter rail service to Racine, which would make it easier to put ever more Johnson jobs in Illinois.

Wisconsin officials, meanwhile, have killed proposals to start commuter rail service between Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha as well as high-speed rail service between Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. Perhaps all of the recent news on jobs will change this mind set, but it will be a tough sell. Wisconsin is a place where reaching cooperation on even a local government level is hard. The City of Milwaukee will not sell water to the City of Waukesha for fear of giving the latter an economic edge.

Meanwhile, Waukesha County officials have made it crystal clear then will not back any effort to support regional cultural assets such as the Milwaukee Public Museum and Marcus Center for the Preforming Arts, the very things that help to broaden and deepen the talent pool from which firms such as SC Johnson want to employ workers. In an increasingly global economy, such parochial attitudes are extremely damaging.

Regional cooperation and fostering greater ties between businesses and governments from Manitowoc to Madison to Milwaukee to, yes, Chicago, is the way to make our area more economically and culturally vibrant in the future. Let’s hope that the loss of the weinerwhistle helps our leaders understand this.

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