After 11 and a half months of negotiations and struggle, and two years after they first voted to join UE, workers at the Refresco bottling plant ratified their first union contract on June 29 and 30; workers received immediate pay raises when it went into effect the next day. The contract includes significant pay increases, strong health and safety language, and protections against workers being forced to work 12-hours shifts, all major issues that fueled the organizing campaign.
Workers will see pay increases of between 10.75 percent and close to 20 percent within the next two years, when longevity and decompression increases are added to the general wage increases in the contract.
For the first time, workers will have a legally-binding contract which obliges the company to take specific steps to ensure a safe workplace and to provide employees with necessary protections. Machines will be equipped with necessary guards to prevent injuries. Workers will have the right to complain to supervisors and the plant manager when dangerous situations exist, in order to resolve them on the spot. The company agreed to maintain the plant, including restrooms and lunchrooms, in a sanitary condition at all times, and to be responsible for the payment of medical examinations required as a condition of employment.
The contract also establishes a health and safety committee with an equal number of members from the union and management, which will meet at least once a month to review and improve health and safety practices in the plant.
The contract sets up a system to allocate shift work according to workers’ preferences as much as possible. Every six months, the company will let the union know how many volunteers it needs to work 12-hour shifts for the next six months. If there are not enough volunteers, the 12-hour shifts will be filled by the least-senior workers. The company has to prove to the union that it has a valid reason (customer orders) to justify the number of 12-hour shifts they want to offer. All workers, including mechanics, will be guaranteed at least one full weekend off every four weeks. The contract also sets up a fair procedure for distribution of overtime.
Workers will be paid shift differentials of 75 cents for second shift and $1.25 for third shift. Workers on 12-hour shifts will receive a differential of 75 cents for daytime shifts and $1.25 for nighttime shifts. Shift differentials will be paid for all hours worked, not just those that occur during specific hours. Workers on 12-hour shifts will be paid 40 hours for the weeks they work three 12-hour shifts (e.g., an extra four hours). Any workers who are asked to train other workers will receive an extra $2 in pay for every hour they spend training
The company agreed to offer a new health insurance plan with zero “coinsurance” fees or deductibles, an expanded network compared to the current plans, and protections against surprise bills, which has been a problem with the company’s existing plans.
Workers will now have ten guaranteed paid holidays during the year (one of which, Good Friday, management had tried to take away), plus two floating holidays. The floating holidays can be used anytime during the year, can also be used for call-outs, and may be used in four-hour increments. Paid holiday time off in a given week will now be counted as hours worked for the purpose of calculating overtime that week, and holidays that land on a weekend day will be recognized on the nearest weekday — a common practice throughout the economy but one that Refresco had tried to avoid.
The union contract clarifies the attendance policy, giving workers more security and protections against getting points. It also preserves the existing grace period for tardiness, which the company had sought to eliminate.
The contract codifies and protects workers’ existing retirement benefits, with the company matching 50 peercent of a worker's 401(k) contributions up to six percent. It also protects their 40 hours of sick leave, and workers’ ability to either cash out unused sick time or save it for the following year.
Workers may now take up to three weeks of vacation at a time (previously they were limited to two), and may request more time than that if the worker has to travel a long distance during their vacation. Such requests will not be unreasonably denied by the company. Vacation hours will now be counted as hours worked for the purpose of qualifying for overtime in the workweek.
The safety shoe allowance was increased from $100 to $135, the tool allowance for maintenance workers and mechanics was increased from $250 to $300, and the company agreed to purchase any specialty tool needed by such workers to do their jobs. The contract also establishes an education reimbursement for English classes or for any education that will help workers do their jobs.
The contract includes a variety of provisions to help establish Local 115 as a strong union. All workers covered by the contract will be required to join or pay a service fee to the union (union security). The UE steward system to defend workers’ rights is recognized in the contract, including the right of stewards to file grievances and attend grievance meetings on work time, in the plant. A solid grievance procedure is established to resolve workplace issues in a timely manner. The discipline and discharge language establishes a “just cause” standard and progressive discipline, protecting workers from being fired or otherwise disciplined for no reason or in a manner out of proportion to their violation.
Abusive treatment by supervisors, low wages, paltry benefits, sexual harassment, an unforgiving attendance system that penalized workers for getting sick, and constant schedule changes prompted the workers to contact UE in February of 2020. They began organizing just as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S., and quickly began taking collective action to protect themselves. They marched on the boss to deliver an open letter demanding that the plant shut down, and the entire second shift walked off the job when a leader of the organizing campaign, who was translating for other workers, was asked to leave a meeting about possible infections in the plant.
As the virus moved through the plant — at one point, the entire first-shirt organizing committee was out sick — it slowed down the momentum of the organizing campaign. Key workers stayed in touch with UE, however, and the following year were able to sign up a majority of their co-workers to join the union. The company’s poor handling of the pandemic was one of the key issues convincing workers that they needed their own organization to fight for safety in the plant.
The workers overcame an aggressive anti-union campaign and voted to join UE in June of 2021. But their road to a union contract proved rocky, as the company refused to accept the results of the election, filing objection after objection and refusing to bargain with the union.
Even as the company stalled, the workers continued to press for justice in their plant, delivering a letter signed by the majority of workers demanding that the company begin bargaining, holding rallies and filing OSHA complaints, and reaching out directly to investors in the private-equity firm that owned the company at the time.
Incredibly, in early 2022 the National Labor Relations Board sided with the company and overturned the original election. The decision was based on the fact that the NLRB itself opened the voting five minutes late, a minor error that UE had conclusively demonstrated had no effect on the election outcome.
Forced to run the gauntlet of company union-busting again, the workers won a second NLRB election in May 2022 — by a wider margin than the first election.
Worker Action Gets Best First Contract in Country
After UE won the second election, the company finally began to bargain. Workers signed petitions in support of their bargaining committee, wore union stickers and t-shirts in the plant, marched on the boss, displayed strike signs in their cars, and contacted Refresco customers to inform them that without justice production could be adversely impacted.
When the company was being inflexible about hours of work, some 40-50 workers and their families packed negotiations to demonstrate how important it was for workers to be able to spend time with their families. After the mass action, the company’s tone at the table changed significantly.
Workers also took the struggle to KKR, the private equity firm that purchased Refresco in early 2022, constantly reminding KKR investors that they too were responsible for the working conditions at the plant and visiting KKR corporate headquarters in New York City twice.
At the end of negotiations, Refresco’s Vice President of Human Resources for North America admitted to the Local 115 negotiating committee that UE had gotten the best first contract at any Refresco plant in the country.
The Local 115 negotiating committee consisted of Jose “Pepito” Delgado, Lida Guevara, Erik Moran, César Moreira, Ivan Rios, Jose Rivera, Anthony Sanchez, and Ana Then. They were assisted by International Representatives Fernando Ramirez and Tara McCauley and by Field Organizer John Ocampo. The Private Equity Stakeholder Project and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health provided crucial support during the struggle for a first contract.