Talks Averted Wells ‘Closing,’ Union Says

Teamsters Union 264 said they negotiated a deal to keep Dunkirk’s Wells plant opened. File photo

An employee just over 72 years old who worked as a palletizer was one of 183 individuals to get the bad news. At the other end of the spectrum was a 19-year-old packer who was part of Dunkirk’s largest downsizing in 2022.

Both worked their last day at Wells Enterprises in Dunkirk on Dec. 31.

In an announcement that stunned Chautauqua County — and was highly unexpected after more than $80 million in investments to the facility — the ice-cream producer stated on July 17 it would be laying off 319 individuals. After Christmas, however, 136 of those working at the plant were given a reprieve as reductions were decreased by 43%.

As grave as the word of the layoffs were in the north county, it could have been much worse. Teamsters 264 officials, in an email to the newspaper, said the city facility was being targeted for closure by Wells.

“The company notified (us) that they were closing the facility,” said Brian Dickman, union president. “We entered into negotiations to keep it open and operating. The fact (is) that the facility is still open with 300-plus people working there.”

In response to Dickman’s comments, Wells Enterprises said in a statement to the OBSERVER on Friday it “continues operating our Dunkirk facility at a reduced capacity of six manufacturing lines to support our overall business consistent with when we announced the change to employees in July.”

Decisions on what employees would stay — and who would go — were based on company talks with the Teamsters. Those who were leaving were asked to sign a separation agreement, which could offer them an opportunity to return.

As a severance for their service, those union workers who left were eligible to receive a payment of up to 240 hours that could include unused vacation time. Documents regarding the separations were obtained in recent weeks by the OBSERVER.

“This is an involuntary program,” the notice said. “Employees were selected based on their skills, abilities and/or their seniority with the departments. Decisions about union members were made in consultation with the union.”

Some of those laid off, who also paid union dues, said not enough was done by the Teamsters to save jobs, especially for those on the higher end of the pay scale. In an interview with a top Wells officials in December, it was noted the company hoped a partnership with the Ferrero Group, which is based in Italy, could bring some jobs back to the city facility in future years.

“This acquisition is awesome for Wells and Wells employees,” said Mark Meyer, chief operating officer at Wells Enterprises in Le Mars, Iowa. “It really gives us a platform to accelerate growth and with growth obviously comes expansion and jobs across our whole network.”

Wells took over the ice-cream making facility in April 2019, purchasing the former Fieldbrook Foods property from Arbor Investments. Immediately, Wells worked to upgrade and renovate operations that would increase the brands produced as well as the number of employees.

With some county Industrial Development Agency assistance, Wells invested $87 milllion to add manufacturing lines, do other upgrades and create up to 70 new jobs. National Grid also announced a $750,000 economic development grant for the project in January 2021.

All that came to a halt in the summer when job reductions were announced. Dickman did say some union workers who were previously let go have returned to work.

“Laid-off members are being called back daily and will continue to be per our agreement,” he said.

Wells officials backed up the comments. “Wells has recalled a small number of employees for a variety of reasons,” the company said in a statement. “We are also experiencing some interim challenges with attendance and as such, have enlisted the help of temporary workers to fill the gaps. However, we expect that to be brief in nature and when or if we have full-time openings, we give laid-off employees first priority.”


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