Heroic Mott’s strike ends with concessions

September 17, 2010

Brian Lenzo reports from upstate New York on a contract agreement that brought an end to the nearly four-month-old strike at a Mott's factory.

WORKERS AT the Mott's plant in Williamson, N.Y., have accepted a concessionary contract following a 121-day strike that attracted widespread labor and community support.

The workers, members of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Local 220, voted by a 3-1 margin September 13 to accept a new contract and to end their strike against Mott's, a company owned by the Plano, Texas-based Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS).

DPS management initially sought to cut hourly wages by over $1.50, end the employee pension plan, and significantly increase the amount employees contribute to their health care costs. On all these fronts, management failed to achieve their objectives.

Mott's workers fought off the wage cuts, but agreed to a three-year wage freeze. Workers will also receive a $1,000 signing bonus, and pensions will be maintained for existing employees, though not for new hires.

Local 220's parent union issued a statement calling the settlement a victory. However, the union made major concessions.

Mott's strikers hold down the picket line outside the Williamson, N.Y., plant
Mott's strikers hold down the picket line outside the Williamson, N.Y., plant

For example, workers currently receive, in addition to their pension, a 401(k) retirement plan, matched at 5 percent by the company. Under the new contract, however, the matching rate will be reduced to 2 percent. New hires will get a 4 percent matching raise--but they won't receive a defined-benefit pension at all.

The deal also underlines management's grip on the shop floor. Mott's practice of "reassignment," in which an employee's work classification can be changed at management's whim, will continue, although workers will get 30 days notice before being "adjusted to the appropriate hourly wage"--which in some cases will mean a wage cut.

SUCH CONCESSIONS are, unfortunately, a common outcome of labor disputes today. Even profitable companies like DPS are using high unemployment to demand concessions. The playing field was, from the beginning, tilted against the union in favor of management and its priorities.

Typical of bosses during a recession, DPS management exploited the desperation of the local labor market to hire scabs and put pressure on workers to accept whatever was being offered.

The union filed an unfair labor practices (ULP) claim against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB). In a ULP strike, the law bans employers from permanently replacing strikers. However, the NRLB, an agency stacked with supposedly "worker friendly" Obama administration appointees, dismissed the claim, putting all 300-plus strikers' jobs in jeopardy.

"A lot of people felt we were about to lose our jobs," Bruce Beal, recording secretary for Local 220 told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "A lot of people felt our federal government let the working people down by not saying the company was not negotiating in good faith."

Amid the growing threat the strikers would be permanently replaced, leaders of the RWDSU's parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), began to push for a settlement.

Things didn't have to play out that way. Widespread anger about excessive CEO pay and the bailout of the banksters should have made it easy to vilify a super-profitable corporation like DPS, whose overpaid CEO was asking workers to take pay and benefit cuts. The Republic Windows & Doors workers, during their factory occupation in December 2008, were able to successfully embarrass Bank of America into making severance payments down in just this way.

But the officers of the UFCW wouldn't expand the call for a boycott of DPS products, and they only extended pickets to other DPS plants a handful of times. No members of the local union were on the negotiating team, and workers routinely complained about the lack of communication about the status of their strike.

The UFCW officials' main strategy seemed to be aimed at getting support from politicians from New York state and Texas--which to their credit, it did get--and hoping the NRLB would rule in the workers' favor.

However, an offer almost identical to the final solution was rejected by a solid majority of workers just two weeks earlier. It was pressure from union officials, citing the NRLB ruling, which pushed workers to accept the deal in a 185-62 vote.

Nevertheless, workers should be proud of their courageous struggle. Throughout the strike, the unity of Local 220 was virtually unshakable. Only a handful of workers crossed the picket line during the 121-day strike. Strikers maintained pickets nearly 24 hours a day and united much of the community behind their fight.

The strike rightly received national attention, and although workers were forced to make concessions, it sent a message to Corporate America that workers won't be forced to pay for the economic crisis without a fight.

That fighting example was especially important to the greater Rochester community, which has been blighted by layoffs at former corporate giants like Kodak and Xerox. The Mott's workers' strike brought the issue of union solidarity into the public consciousness for the first time in years--and maybe even a little hope.

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