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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Aug 11, 2010, 11:53 am

Sour Apples: Mott’s Workers Continue Strike as Harvest Season Looms

BY Akito Yoshikane

RWDSU Local 220 members on the picket line.   (Photo courtesy RWDSU)

Employees at the Mott’s apple processing plant in Williamson, N.Y., have been on strike for at least two months with no end in sight. Last week, pressure to resolve the dispute increased when the region's apple pickers said they'll cross the picket line to harvest this year's crop.

The workers, represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU, affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union) Local 220, are entrenched in a dispute over a labor contract full of concessions even as the parent company of the apple-based juice and sauce producer is posting record profits.

The conflict was briefly profiled by USA Today last month to highlight the decline of labor strikes in recent years, but the union has continued to stage a campaign to earn a favorable contract. Since then, local and political leaders have rallied around the union while Mott’s has hired replacement workers heading into the apple harvesting season

Apples are big business in Western New York, adding about $50 million to the local economy.

New York trails Washington as the largest apple producer in the country. The harvesting season begins in mid-August and one-third of the state’s apples are processed at the Mott’s plant. But the company will probably face a logjam without their usual employees.

On May 23, about 300 union workers walked out on the job after the company instituted a new contract with reduced wages and benefits. The union says Mott’s, a subsidiary of Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), wants full-time employees to take on more of the financial burden by taking a $1.50/hour pay cut while their pension and health benefits are reduced.

Mott’s says the pay cut in particular is intended to offer wages in line with other manufacturing jobs in Williamson, located about 20 miles east of Rochester. They add that Mott’s employees make $21 an hour compared to a local $14, a figure the union disputes.

The ongoing trend of workplace cutbacks over furloughs was recently covered by the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse: businesses are increasingly paying their workers’ less to recoup or mitigate financial losses. But that hardly applies to Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS). The company posted record profits last year. Larry Young, the president and CEO, has seen his salary climb 113 percent during the past three years, to $6.5 million.

The company defended the choice to impose employee concessions amid record profits and , arguing that the Texas-based DPS has “a fiduciary responsibility” to their clients and investors. In turn, the union has earned support from organization across the country to local figures from New York Senator Chuck Schumer, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, down to the New York City Council.

Workers have been getting the word out by even slapping labels on Mott’s products in grocery stores to highlight the strike, but the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported that a Texas district judge ruled in favor of DPS to prohibit the guerrilla tactics earlier this week.

The RWDSU/UFCW Local 220 has picketed in other DPS manufacturing plants in Illinois and Virginia to protest the recruitment of workers hired as replacements at the Mott’s plant. The strike has also raised quality control concerns since many of the newly hired workers are not trained or experienced. Seventy percent of the workplace at the plant required skilled labor.

So far, Mott’s has continued to use the new workers. The New York Apple Growers Association announced last week that its members will have to cross the picket line in order to harvest the new crops. While cautioning that the move was not intended to be disrespectful, the group says their families have no other choice but to proceed and urged both sides to resolve the matter.

With harvest season approaching, the situation is turning even more critical for the industry and the livelihoods of local workers. As the company reaps major profits, workers will have to keep fighting to squeeze out their share.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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