No Justice, No Peeps! Workers Walk Off the Job At Pennsylvania Peeps Factory

Mario Vasquez

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has called for a boycott of Just Born products. (Daniel Spiess/ Flickr)

Work­ers employed by can­dy man­u­fac­tur­er, Just Born Qual­i­ty Con­fec­tions, in Beth­le­hem, Penn­syl­va­nia, are on strike over the company’s pen­sion plan pro­pos­al. The strike, work­ers allege, hits the com­pa­ny — which makes Peeps, as well as Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales can­dies — just as next year’s East­er orders are meant to be made.

This is my liveli­hood,” says Alex Fat­tore, a mechan­ic who has been at Just Born since 1980. We make East­er hap­pen. I want to go back in there and make East­er happen.”

Rough­ly 400 work­ers walked off the job Sep­tem­ber 7, draw­ing a hard line against the company’s attempt to switch new hires to a 401(k), instead of the mul­ti­em­ploy­er pen­sion plan that work­ers are present­ly a part of. They are rep­re­sent­ed by the Bak­ery, Con­fec­tionery, Tobac­co Work­ers and Grain Millers (BCT­GM) Union Local 6.

The com­pa­ny claims that it’s con­cerned about the pen­sion plan’s long-term via­bil­i­ty. The plan report­ed assets of $5 bil­lion and lia­bil­i­ties of $8 bil­lion, and pro­ject­ed insol­ven­cy with­in 14 years, accord­ing to the com­pa­ny. The union, how­ev­er, coun­ters that the com­pa­ny is not allowed to put pen­sion details on the nego­ti­at­ing table, per pen­sion fund rules. The com­pa­ny is push­ing its plan as a part of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing nego­ti­a­tions for an agree­ment that expired in June.

The com­pa­ny is grow­ing,” says chief shop stew­ard Kei­th Turn­er, a machin­ist with 21 years of Just Born expe­ri­ence, allud­ing to its claims of dou­ble-dig­it growth. It’s kind of iron­ic that they would turn around now and tell us that they can’t afford anything.”

Work­ers addi­tion­al­ly claim that if the move to a 401(k) plan for new hires were to go into effect, it would only fur­ther weak­en the mul­ti­em­ploy­er pen­sion fund, forc­ing the fund’s trustees to reduce retiree benefits.

Just Born did not respond to a request to com­ment, but it released a state­ment that read, in part: Our pro­pos­al — to have exist­ing asso­ciates remain in the cur­rent pen­sion plan and to have future hires par­tic­i­pate in a 401(k) plan — pro­vides a respect­ful path that hon­ors our cur­rent asso­ciates’ exist­ing ben­e­fits, and pro­vides a sus­tain­able retire­ment ben­e­fit for our future hires.”

It’s the equiv­a­lent of — let’s say you signed a 30-year mort­gage, and after 20 years you decide, you know I don’t want to pay this part of it any­more so I’m just not going to — and you just can’t do that,” Turn­er tells In These Times.

The Penn­syl­va­nia AFL-CIO has called for a boy­cott of Just Born products.

While this is the first strike at a Just Born facil­i­ty in decades, this is not the first time the com­pa­ny has attempt­ed to impose a change in pen­sion plans, accord­ing to union offi­cials. Last year, the com­pa­ny imple­ment­ed a final con­tract includ­ing the same 401(k) plan pro­posed at the Beth­le­hem plant, after declar­ing an impasse in its con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with the rough­ly 35 work­ers at its Gold­en­berg’s Peanut Chews fac­to­ry in Philadel­phia. BCT­GM chal­lenged the change with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board but was denied, lead­ing the union to take the mat­ter to fed­er­al court in a case that is still pend­ing, a year and a half later.

We’ll say, a few years from now, if we didn’t stand up and stand our ground — that we had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to stand our ground with this com­pa­ny and say we aren’t going to take this,” Fat­tore tells In These Times. We’re going to stand our ground and we’re going to fight (for) what’s right.”

Since work­ers vot­ed to strike, they have tried to keep up morale. An unfair labor prac­tice charge was filed by Local 6 after alleged­ly dis­cov­er­ing that an indi­vid­ual affil­i­at­ed with Just Born con­tact­ed strik­ing work­ers, pos­ing as a union offi­cial, telling them to return to work. The com­plaint, filed with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, is pending.

Anoth­er, more pub­lic, com­pa­ny action that is caus­ing sub­stan­tial wor­ry among strik­ing Just Born work­ers is the hir­ing of replace­ment work­ers at the facil­i­ty, with about 175 report­ed­ly attend­ing a job fair and anoth­er 600 apply­ing for jobs online. As of press time, both sides have agreed to come back to the bar­gain­ing table along­side a fed­er­al medi­a­tor this week.

We pret­ty well know from peo­ple inside, and from what we can see on the out­side, that they haven’t made a Peep yet,” says Turn­er. The longer that this goes on, the more squeezed that they are for their Peep pro­duc­tion. We’re hop­ing that a lit­tle bit of hunger from us, and a lit­tle bit of hunger from them, makes some­thing happen.”

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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