Workers from the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, NJ traveled to New York City on Wednesday to deliver a petition to the private equity firm which owns their company — and to meet with major institutional investors in that firm.
The workers are members of UE Local 115, and are currently in negotiations for a first union contract. As negotiating committee member César Moreira explained, they are fighting for “three basic demands” which are “things that everyone should have as a right” — decent wages and benefits, health and safety at work, and fair schedules.
“I’ve been working at Refresco for 23 years. In those 23 years I’ve had five accidents,” said Refresco worker Licinia Ochoa, as workers and allies gathered on the sidewalk outside of the gleaming Hudson Yards skyscraper in Manhattan. “One of them you can see here on my leg,” she said, gesturing towards a scar on her left knee. “I fell at the plant during work hours and I’m still dealing with Refresco over this issue.”
The office building at 30 Hudson Yards, built with over $1 billion in public subsidies over the past decade, is home to the private equity firm KKR, which owns a majority stake in Refresco. It is also home to a private building security force who stopped UE members as soon as they entered the building, seeking to meet with KKR. The Local 115 members wanted to deliver a petition, signed by over 600 consumers, demanding that Refresco negotiate a fair first contract with Local 115. (UE and allies had repeatedly asked to schedule a meeting with KKR, but KKR refused to schedule a meeting on the day workers would be in New York.)
UE members speaking with KKR corporate security.
Although KKR refused to meet with the workers, members of their company security force did eventually emerge from the building and spoke with UE members on the sidewalk outside. The KKR security listened and said that they would report workers’ messages to the KKR staff, and that they would give the petitions to KKR.
Refresco workers were also joined by allies, including Charlie Uruchima from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and Justin Flores from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project (PESP). Uruchima spoke about the efforts of the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and its affiliates like NYCOSH to support Refresco workers in fighting for a safe and healthy workplace. Those efforts included highlighting Refresco in their 2022 “Dirty Dozen” report, which draws national attention to companies with particularly bad health and safety records, and sponsoring the online petition which workers were seeking to deliver. “We’re going to keep supporting them while they go to the finish line” of a first union contract, he promised.
Flores, whose organization has worked closely with Refresco workers to bring their story to the institutions which invest in their company, declared that “Companies like KKR shouldn’t be getting rich off the backs of workers and communities. We’re here to say, that’s enough. We’re going to go talk to some of their investors shortly after this and spread the message that enough is enough.”
UE members meeting with staff from the New York City comptroller’s office.
Following the petition delivery, UE members and PESP representatives met with the New York City Comptroller’s Office. The comptroller, an elected position, oversees and audits the city’s finances — including its pension funds, which are invested in KKR. The comptroller’s pension fund staff said that they had already talked to KKR and expressed their disappointment that KKR refused to meet with the workers when they were in New York. The pension fund staff listened to the workers, and promised to follow up with KKR. They said they planned to particularly focus on the health and safety problems.