Williamson, New York
Dan Yates is one of a half-dozen people in North America who cook Mott’s Original Apple Sauce. And in twenty-two years of service to the company, he never thought he’d be on a picket line. Braving the July heat, Yates stood in the shade by his pickup truck outside the plant in this town near Rochester, which, along with being the continent’s exclusive maker of the brand’s flagship product, also processes juices and drink mixers. A large-framed man sporting a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, Yates, like the nearly 300 workers on strike, is proud of his job but had no other choice but to walk out.
"As far as I’m concerned, they were personally attacking me," he said, recalling his decision to vote in favor of the strike in May, when the company demanded major union givebacks. "I knew I had everybody behind me, and we’re all in it together."
The members of the one-shop Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Local 220, which had never engaged in any type of militant action, began their strike with the belief that they were dealing with a company—the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, or DPS—that, despite posting whopping profits, was attempting to gut their benefits to enrich its executives even further. But in a country where private-sector union membership has hit historic lows and strikes have become rare, the picketers here in western New York say it’s not just their jobs that are on the line. If DPS can get away with this, they believe, all other blue-collar workers in the middle class will be sitting ducks for what the strikers call "corporate greed."
Until 2008, Mott’s was owned by Cadbury Schweppes, and as workers explained, there had been a family atmosphere at the plant for decades. Management gave workers hams at Easter and held an annual Christmas party. If workers exceeded production goals, managers organized hot dog roasts as a reward. And the union and management had an active work-safety committee. Local 220 secured pay increases in good times and made concessions when the company was in a crunch, veteran workers said.
Then Cadbury spun off the Plano, Texas–based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which took the Mott’s brand with it. From then on, everything changed at the Williamson facility. No more company parties, and safety committee meetings ended. Managers over-enforced work rules to the point of absurdity; one worker who had previously been the union local’s president said he was fired for keeping a knife in his locker, even though he needed it during his shift to open boxes.
Then came contract talks this past February, and the company’s opening proposal came as a shock. In addition to $3 per hour wage cuts across the board, it called for eliminating the pension for new employees, reducing the employer match on the 401(k) from 5 percent to 4 percent, and instituting a healthcare plan with higher co-pays and premiums. In addition, it would have allowed the company to shift workers through titles and wage scales from day to day. So a senior worker could come to work one day and do his or her regular task, and the next day be assigned to a low-level duty and earn a lower wage. "At that point, I knew it would be bad," recalled Local 220 president Mike LeBerth, a lead production technician.
Throughout the twenty-two bargaining sessions, the company made its intentions clear. At no point did its representatives say the company was in trouble and needed to cut operational costs to survive. Far from it—DPS posted a $555 million profit last year. So why was the company driving such a hard bargain? The way the union’s bargaining committee saw it, the company knew unemployment in western New York was high, so it wanted to cash in on the suffering.