UE Local 115 members from the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, NJ attempted to bring their concerns about conditions in their plant to the corporate headquarters of private equity firm KKR on Tuesday, February 28. It was the second attempt the workers have made to meet with KKR, which owns a majority stake in Refresco. For a second time, KKR refused to meet with the workers.
“We went to the building, we tried to talk to someone at KKR, and did it respectfully,” said Refresco worker Pamela Burgos. “All we’re asking for is equal rights and our rights as workers. We just want to be able to have a meeting with them so we can discuss our issues.”
At the KKR front desk.
“The least they could do is meet with us and talk with us,” said César Moreira, who also works at the plant. “We’re just asking to meet with them and discuss our issues, especially as we are the ones who do the work that they profit from.”
Refresco workers organized a union in June of 2021, largely to address issues of health and safety in their plant, and are still struggling for a first contract. Workers continue to suffer from poor safety conditions, with a near-fatal accident occurring in the plant in early January. They are still being forced to work mandatory 12-hour shifts, punishing work hours which exacerbate the dangerous conditions at the plant.
“We feel defrauded by Refresco and KKR,” said Ana Cáceres, who has worked at Refresco for more than 18 years. “It’s been a year now since KKR acquired Refresco and we have been fighting to win our union and first union contract for over a year.
“Meanwhile, things are getting worse for us at the plant. Now they are changing the schedules of co-workers who have been injured at the plant and forcing them to work weekends. KKR, as the head of this operation, should be here to show their face and make the necessary changes so that we have a better workplace.”
While in New York, Refresco workers also met with staff from the New York City Comptroller’s Office. The Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the investments of the city’s pension funds, had asked the Refresco workers to keep them abreast of their negotiations for a first union contract, as some of the city’s pension funds are invested in KKR.
UE Local 115 members meeting with NYC Comptroller Chief ESG Officer John Adler.
After talking with the UE members and allies from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, John Adler, the Comptroller’s office chief environmental, social and governance officer, promised to raise workers’ concerns with KKR and possibly re-evaluate the city’s ongoing investment in light of the situation at Refresco.
Other public pension funds around the country with investments in KKR have also taken an interest in the private equity fund’s record on worker health and safety. Following a presentation by Refresco workers at their board meeting in mid-February, staff from CalPERS, the largest public pension fund in the U.S., reached out to the workers’ union to learn more about conditions in the Refresco plant.
KKR was recently the subject of a glowing profile by CBS news, which touted the company’s commitment to employee ownership. But the experience of Refresco workers tells a different story, as related by journalist Matt Cunningham-Cook in his recent article “At This Jersey Factory, Pension-Backed Private Equity Takes On Union Workers.”
At the NYC Comptroller's office with Justin Flores of Private Equity Stakeholder Project (far right).