Canadian News

Chocolate soldiers, dismiss!

Graham Fraser December 4 1978
Canadian News

Chocolate soldiers, dismiss!

Graham Fraser December 4 1978

Chocolate soldiers, dismiss!

Canadian News

Montreal

There is a certain tragic inevitability in the sad ritual that is growing up about the closing of a sizable business in Quebec. There are protests and petitions; politicians from all levels of government make loud noises of concern and promise to investigate and help; the company executives solemnly meet with officials and solemnly agree to consider

the government offers of assistance— and then solemnly but regretfully announce that the situation is irreversible. And finally, amid a flurry of angry meetings, pickets and bitter comments by longtime employees, the place closes. Thus it ran last week with Cadbury’s Montreal chocolate factory.

At first it seemed that the Cadbury closing was an industrial version of the Sun Life decision last winter—another corporation giving the finger to the Lévesque government and moving to Ontario. Certainly the manner of the original announcement last July made that a plausible interpretation: in an eight-line statement Cadbury President Timothy Powell announced the factory would be closed down “on or about Nov. 15, 1978”—the second anniversary of the Parti Québécois victory. Powell insists the choice of date was inadvertent.

Legally, the company had to give four months’ notice, which would have been Nov. 8. “I didn’t want to make it four months to the day, so I said let’s round it off to Nov. 15. There were a dozen people there and nobody said, ‘Hey, that’s a significant date,’ ” Powell insisted. “If we had it to do over again, we’d pick another date.” Yet as much as the loss of 500 jobs, it was that provocative date that stimulated the surge of protest, petitions and anger. The boycott of Cadbury products mounted by the union reportedly led to a 50-per-cent drop in sales of Cadbury chocolate bars in Quebec.

However, the closing—which happened, in fact, on Nov. 17—was due much more to cold multinational economics than to hot nationalist politics. Companies that were attracted to Quebec in the industrial boom before the First World War because of cheap labor are now faced with aging factories and

high wages. But the particular problems of Cadbury Schweppes Powell Ltd. have more to do with the skyrocketing price of cocoa beans in 1974 than with anything else. That was also the year the company poured $7 million into modernizing the 60-year-old Montreal factory and built a new 100,000-squarefoot plant in Whitby, Ontario.

For the unemployed Cadbury workers, the construction of the Whitby plant now seems to have been the fatal move. “Listen, it was at that moment that the decision was really taken,” says union President Hector Aubin, an 18-year veteran at the Montreal candy factory. Not so, says company President Powell. “Had the increase in consumption continued at the same rate from 1973 to 1978 the way it did from 1965 to 1973, we would have had both plants fully occupied. But the price of cocoa went up 650 per cent, and chocolate bars went from 10 cents to 25 cents.” And

down went sales.

Quebec Industry Minister Rodrigue Tremblay, one of the least diplomatic and most gaffe-prone members of the Lévesque cabinet, succeeded only in falsely raising the hopes of the Cadbury workers. By turns overgenerous (offering to build Cadbury a brand-new plant), condescending (offering to lend the company management expertise) and insulting (Tremblay publicly called Powell someone “of very great arrogance and very little competence”), he came away from the incident with his credibility damaged on all sides. But blustering or begging, Tremblay’s attempts at intervention were irrelevant. “Our problem was not whether we could borrow money, or whether we could modernize our plant,” Powell explained later. “We needed more chocolate-eaters—and there was very little the government could do about that.”

Graham Fraser