250 bottling plant workers overcome aggressive union-busting campaign which demonstrates need for PRO Act
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John Ocampo, UE Field Organizer
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Almost 250 Refresco bottling factory workers voted on June 24 and 25, 2021 to form a union with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) in the largest National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) win in the U.S. this year by a group of blue-collar workers. The union victory comes over a year after workers at the plant staged a walkout to protest the utter disregard for their safety shown by management during the pandemic.
“I’ve worked here for 22 years and have the scars to prove it. I jumped into this organizing campaign because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I did all these years. I know that generations of workers to come will enjoy better working and living conditions thanks to the union,” said Licinia Ochoa, who has worked as a Machine Operator at the plant since 1999 and was part of the union organizing committee.
“We do the work that makes this company rich. But they only see us as dollar signs, not people. This was our time. It was now or never. With our union we will finally win the better pay and respect that we deserve,” said Cesar Moreira, a Batching Technician in the Blend Room.
The group of mostly Latin American immigrant workers voted for a union despite an aggressive anti-union campaign by the world's largest bottling corporation. Workers were subjected to six weeks of mandatory brainwashing sessions, illegal interrogations by supervisors, and mandatory anti-union meetings organized by supervisors in work areas during work hours. The anti-union campaign was conducted by the same union-busting firm used by Donald Trump at his properties, Cruz & Associates.
“The fact that this large corporation felt they could break the law with impunity demonstrates that Congress must act now to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act,” said UE Director of Organization Gene Elk. “While this brave group of workers was able to prevail over Refresco’s union-busting campaign, this kind of corporate intimidation prevents far too many workers in the U.S. from exercising their right to bargain collectively with their employer.”
Workers began their union organizing campaign in 2020 after years of abusive treatment by supervisors, low wages, paltry benefits, sexual harassment, an unforgiving attendance system that penalizes workers for getting sick, and constant schedule changes. The organizing campaign was temporarily suspended as dozens of workers fell ill with COVID-19, but this year, workers regrouped and successfully organized their union. The company's careless handling of the pandemic last year turned out to be one of the main reasons workers succeeded in winning over a majority for the union this year.
Workers at Refresco in Wharton produce beverages such as BodyArmor Sports Drink for Coca-Cola, Gatorade by Pepsi, Juice Bowl, Arizona Iced Tea, and Tropicana juices and bottle them for shipment to retailers and public school systems in the New York City area and beyond. Refresco is a Dutch-based transnational corporation that has production facilities in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In 2016, Refresco bought Whitlock Packaging’s three production facilities, the Wharton, NJ plant among them, for $129 million. In 2017, Refresco expanded its global empire by paying $1.25 billion to buy over 20 plants in North America owned by the Cott Corporation. After that deal, Refresco became the world’s largest independent bottling corporation with a combined production volume of more than 12 billion liters per year.
The UE is a democratic national union representing some 35,000 workers in a wide variety of manufacturing, public sector and private service-sector jobs. UE is an independent union (not affiliated with the AFL-CIO) proud of its democratic structure and progressive policies. More information is available at www.ueunion.org.
The PRO Act would prevent employers from interfering in union elections and prohibit employers from requiring workers to attend anti-union meetings. It passed the House of Representatives in March and currently has 47 co-sponsors in the Senate.
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