Striking against greed at Mott’s

August 24, 2010

Ralph Bean, Jonathan Valenti and Brian Lenzo report on a battle by workers at an upstate New York factory to stop company demands for concessions.

MORE THAN 300 manufacturing workers at the Mott's plant in Williamson, N.Y., are well into their third month on strike.

Because of both the company's brazen arrogance and the union's determination to take a stand, the strike has taken on national significance. Even establishment institutions and political figures--from the state comptroller of New York to the Texas congressional delegation have issued statements urging Mott's to return to the bargaining table.

The strike began May 23 after contract negotiations broke down between management and representatives of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Local 220.

Union negotiators went to the table asking for a renewal of the same contract members had adopted three years before, but Mott's and its owners, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), had another idea in mind: an even smaller piece of the pie for their workers.

When corporations try to push through cuts in workers' living standards, they often claim "poverty," leaving the burden of "saving the business" on workers.

Members of RWDSU Local 220 on strike in Williamson, N.Y.
Members of RWDSU Local 220 on strike in Williamson, N.Y. (Susan Galloway)

But in the case of conglomerate DPS, that's a lie on the face of it. The company made out big in 2009, netting $555 million in profits, up from the previous year. The price of DPS stock has almost tripled since January 2009, from around $14 a share to around $38 today. And in the first quarter of this year, DPS posted profits of $183 million, indicating this year would be even better than last year. This while most of their competitors were showing losses.

Despite its success, however, the company is going after everything union workers have. Bruce Beal, recording secretary of Local 220 and an employee at the plant, said, "The company told us they can't implement last year's contract. They want a $1.50 an hour cut in pay; a freeze of defined pensions, meaning that they won't grow any larger than they are now; a 20 percent reduction in our 401(k) company match; and a reduction in our health care by making us pay a much higher premium for it."

Maschelle Snyder, another striking Mott's employee, said of the cuts, "We start out paying [more] here on medical, then it increases and increases. We're not going to absorb it anymore."

Another part of management's proposal is a two-tier system, under which new workers wouldn't get a pension. This is a naked move by management to divide the workforce by pitting new and old workers against one another.

Workers on the picket line report that management was becoming increasingly antagonistic before this spring's negotiations.

Striker Chris Couperus thinks that the company's arrogance is about busting the union altogether. "When [the new manager] Tony Zeizer was hired four years ago, I could see the storm coming in all the way from the West Coast," Couperus said. When the new management took over in 2007, it canceled the company's summer picnic and year-end holiday party for employees, and unilaterally eliminated bonuses.

Edward Armstrong, who, like the majority of Mott's plant workers, is capable of operating and performing maintenance on a variety of plant equipment, reported being disciplined in arbitrary ways. "I'm a grade 10 blender and also a good filler," he said. "If the boss needs something fixed, I'll go down there, only to have another boss wander in and ask me what the fuck I'm doing down there."

For years now, management has been using a tactic called "displacement" to gain greater control over the factory--at management's whim, full-time workers can be "displaced" to any job in the factory at any time, and be forced take the associated pay cut. As Maschelle Snyder said, "If they don't like you, they'll put you on the shitty job over and over, until you say no and are fired, or just quit."

BUSTING THE union isn't going as well as DPS might have hoped, however. Before the strike, the plant was running at 87 percent capacity, but now output is down to around 12 percent. Since $50 million of the company $555 million profit in 2009 came from the Williamson plant, the company must be taking a hit to its bottom line.

Local 220 has evidence of the pressures on DPS--the union has found out that the corporation has been forced into "co-packing" Mott's applesauce. Co-packing is an industry practice where competitor companies are paid to slap another company's label on their own product, at a huge loss to the paying company.

For DPS, this means paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the National Fruit Product Company (NFPC) to put the Mott's label on jars of applesauce and other products processed and filled at a NFPC plant in Winchester, Va.

Meanwhile, an under-trained workforce of scabs at the Williamson plant is producing other costs for the company.

Striker Kent Knox said that vastly more botched product is being dumped into a waste pond behind the factory. The pollution is nearing EPA violation levels. "They have to bring in trucks to pump out the sludge and send it to the town of Ontario for processing," said Knox.

The plant is also producing a lot more solid garbage. "Waste Management pulled 44 tons of garbage in a day out of there--they used to pull 52 tons in a month," said striking worker Ed Armstrong. "We used to sort all the garbage and designate what was recyclable and what wasn't, but the scabs and management don't do any of that."

Nevertheless, Mott's workers are digging in for a fight. Local 220 has stood together impressively, with only a handful of workers scabbing. A majority of the local community is supporting the workers, and the company is bleeding money from a key plant.

The RWDSU leadership is implementing a plan to antagonize DPS business efforts everywhere by sending picketers to trade shows, shareholder meetings and the co-packing plant in Winchester, Va.

What will make or break the strike will be Local 220's capacity to weather the storm, which is also contingent on support from the community and the labor movement. As Steven Greenhouse noted in the New York Times, "For unions across the country, the stakes are high because if the Mott's workers lose this showdown, it could prompt other profitable companies to push for major labor concessions."

But if Mott's workers win, it could prove to the labor movement what's necessary for a victory against corporate greed in an economic climate like this one.

Further Reading

From the archives