Williamson, NY — They’re hiring at the Mott’s plant in Wayne County.
Anyone searching the recent “help wanted” ads of the newspapers in Syracuse and Rochester, cities where as least 66,000 people need work, would know that. “Immediate Temporary Openings Available,” said the color half-page ad decorated with glistening apples.
It’s an invitation to join the workers who drive past the striking workers outside the plant on Route 104 in Williamson, 60 miles west of Syracuse. As they arrive, the newly hired hear their daily dose of “Scab!” from the strikers. All for a job that pays $9 an hour with no benefits, replacement workers said. The company won’t be specific, but says it’s gotten a lot of responses.
A strike at the Mott’s Inc. apple-processing plant has entered its 10th week, with no end in sight. The plant’s 305 workers walked out May 23 rather than accept cuts in benefits and pay. The result is a good, old-fashioned strike, the kind which has grown uncommon.
Both sides have deployed hardball tactics. The union uses aggressive picketing, urges boycotts, invokes class warfare and mobilizes its friends in political office. Management from the Dr Pepper Snapple Group has hired a new work force of at least 100 temps and is testing just how desperate the Upstate job market has become.
The plant processes half the apples grown in New York state, as many as 7 million bushels a year, and more from Washington state. Workers turn them into apple sauce, juice and other products. Apples will not wait for a contract settlement, so the replacement workers come in.
One worker said he keeps his windows rolled up and radio loud as he pulls into the parking lot. “It’s a daily act of betrayal,” said the 19-year-old man, a replacement worker for three weeks who said he’s ashamed of what he does. He asked not to be identified for fear he’d be fired. But, the worker said, he needed a job.
“There are a lot of unemployed workers,” said Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell University, “so there are people waiting to take those jobs.”
Strikes have become a rarity across the country, he said. Thirty years ago, 2 percent of the work force was on strike at any time. It’s less than half that now, Hurd said. That’s partly because unions have become weaker as a result of having fewer unionized workers, he said. That makes it somewhat surprising that Mott’s workers would strike, Hurd said.
“It’s harder for unions to exercise leverage” over the company with a strike, he said.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents the workers, says the company is taking advantage of a flooded job market. Otherwise, it would not have imposed a $1.50-an-hour pay cut on workers a year after the company earned a record $555 million profit, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU.
Dr Pepper Snapple’s CEO, Larry Young, earned $6.5 million last year. While the Mott’s workers made $300 a week in strike pay, he went on a company-paid hunting trip to New Zealand on the corporate jet, the union said, citing flight records.
Young’s pay and travel have nothing to do with the situation in Williamson, company spokesman Chris Barnes said. Young’s salary is typical for CEOs at similar companies, he said.
Both of New York’s U.S. senators and state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo have urged the company to negotiate a settlement. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Cuomo’s running mate, Robert Duffy, visited the picket line, as did U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei. Even the New York City Council sent a letter to Young, supporting the workers.
Members of parliament in Canada, where Mott’s sells a large portion of its products, wrote to Young and Canadian food inspection officials asking whether the Mott’s products were safe. They questioned whether the quality and safety might suffer with an inexperienced work force. The company said the quality of its inspections remained high.
The company, based in Plano, Texas, blames the union for the pay cut. During contract negotiations over the winter and spring, the company offered to keep wages unchanged in the new contract. But the union rejected the offer because it came with reduced benefits.
Under the company’s proposal, workers would have to contribute 5 percent more for their health insurance premiums, their pension plans would be frozen, the company would decrease its 401(k) match from 5 percent to 4 percent, and it could move a worker into a lower-paying job (previously, the worker would get the higher pay for 30 days).
The company wants to manage rising benefits costs, just as other employers have done across the country, Barnes said.
In April, the company gave its final offer that included a $1.50-an-hour cut in pay. The company’s position: Mott’s workers make an average of $21 an hour, which it says is about $7 more than the average wage for a similar job in Western New York. The company imposed the cuts, and after a few weeks the union struck.
The company’s demand for the freedom to immediately force workers into lower-paying jobs irked many workers, according to union officials. “That’s what put me to the side of the road,” Ann Vollertsen, 50, a Mott’s worker for 33 years, said of that proposal. “I don’t know how you begin to control a budget not knowing what your wage is from day to day.”
At the beginning of the strike, the company was delivering replacement workers by van, with as many as seven vans a day crossing the picket line, union officials said. Those workers, some from as far away as Texas, were put up in area motels by the company, union officials said.
2010-07-21-sdc-motts5.JPGView full sizeStephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-StandardMembers of Local 220 of the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union picket outside of the Mott’s processing plant on Route 104 in Williamson. About 300 workers have been on strike since May 23.
Management set up a line of truck trailers to block the view of striking workers from the road, and put up a fence around an outdoor break area.
Jose Maldonado, 51, stands in the exact same spot just off the shoulder of Route 104, eight hours a day, five days a week. He didn’t miss a single day of picketing for the first 21 days of the strike, he said. His feet have worn a spot in the gravel. His co-workers call him Ironman. “I’m like a rock over here,” said Maldonado, a cooler operator who’s been at the plant for 21 years.
Michael Bailey set up a tent on the grass outside the plant. He slept there 40 of the 60 nights of the strike. Every day, he harasses the replacement workers, he said.
One replacement worker, Tyler Hamilton, said he brushed off the daily abuse. Hamilton quit his job at Mott’s last week. He got the job through a temp agency, as did about 100 other replacement workers, according to Hamilton and other workers. “I laugh at it because I’m friends with half of them,” Hamilton said of the union catcalls.
The strike has raised concerns among the 158 apple growers in the region as the fall harvest nears. The apples from last season are already backlogged in off-plant storage facilities, said Jim Allen, president of the Apple Growers Association. “We would prefer that the experienced workers are back in the plant and able to run that plant at full capacity when our harvest begins,” Allen said.
If the strike spills into late August, when a bumper crop of apples will be ready for harvesting, it could impact the $50 million that the plant generates a year, Allen said. The plant buys between 6 million and 7 million bushels of apples from New York state growers, he said.
Barnes said the plant has its processing lines running at enough capacity to serve its customers and consumers. He would not comment on estimates from the union that it’s operating at one-third capacity, based on the truck traffic at the plant. “Regardless of the situation at the plant, we’re going to be ready for the harvest and ready to receive shipments from our growers,” he said.