A Qualified Victory: Mott’s Workers End Strike Under Shadow of Permanent Replacements

After the NLRB rejected the union’s unfair labor practice claim, members felt they had little choice but to end the strike. Photo: RWDSU Local 220

After 114 days on the picket line, strikers at the Mott’s plant outside Rochester, New York, voted September 13 to accept the company’s contract offer. Workers, who produce applesauce and juice for Mott’s parent company Dr. Pepper-Snapple, returned to work the following week. The vote was 185 to 62.

According to leaders of Retail Workers (RWDSU) Local 220, the deal beats back most of Mott’s key demands, including a $1.50 an hour wage cut and elimination of the traditional pension. The new agreement also preserves most existing work rules, like a clause guaranteeing that workers who bounce between higher- and lower-paying jobs cannot have their wages cut unless they work a full month in the lower-paid position.

But the contract does make several important concessions, including a three-year wage freeze, cuts in company 401(k) contributions, elimination of traditional pensions for new hires, higher employee health care contributions, expanded use of temps, and elimination of higher-paid job classifications in several areas.

LOST THE ULPs

The terms are similar to those members rejected more than 2-1 on September 2. The turnaround came days after the National Labor Relations Board rejected the union’s clai]m that unfair labor practices were the reason for the strike. “The ULPs were our ace in the pocket,” said Ryan Bubacz, a can line operator and chief steward. “When we lost that ace, our strategy had to change drastically.”

By designating the walkout an economic strike, the labor board cleared the way for Mott’s to permanently replace the strikers, which is not permitted in strikes over unfair labor practices.

“They were going to starve us out,” Bubacz said.

At the September 13 vote, several members argued that the union could do better and pressed to hold out longer. Tom Culhane, a forklift operator, could see both sides.

“I was willing to go another 114 days,” Culhane said, pointing to the local’s strength on the picket line—only nine members scabbed—and the economic toll the strike had taken on the company.

“Mott’s kept saying they were able to produce,” he said, “but we were talking to the farmers; we knew they really weren’t.”

Culhane acknowledged, however, that the labor board decision tipped the balance of power towards the company.

Best-Selling Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

“This is a billion-dollar company fighting against 300 people,” he said. “If they wanted to, they could shut this building down and move production somewhere else.”

The company may have been prepared to wait the RWDSU out. Apples keep in cold storage for up to a year.

Local 220 members will never find out whether a national boycott or stepped-up pressure from their parent union, the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), could have overcome these obstacles. The UFCW’s 2006-2008 corporate campaign against union-busting Smithfield Foods, by contrast, brought both heat and light that helped a local struggle win.

For Bubacz, the board’s decision was just another illustration of corporate power. “The government failed us,” he said. “They voted in favor of the company.”

In the end, both strikers still count the settlement as a qualified victory. The final deal is far better than what the company had demanded going into the strike May 23, Bubacz said.

“The company’s lawyers told us, ‘If you can’t afford to take a $3 an hour pay cut, you should sell your house, because you’re living beyond your means,’” he said.

Culhane said he believed the company wanted to break the union, and showing management that members were willing to strike meant a lot.

“The real question is, what are we going to do, starting now?” Culhane said. “We’ve got to be stronger.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #379, October 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.