Mott Workers on Strike

During contract negotiations, it’s illegal for a company to “plead poverty” in an effort to derail the union. Management is not allowed to say that they can’t afford to give the workers a raise, or to suggest that if they gave the workers the wage increases they requested, the company would risk going out of business.

This prohibition is not only eminently fair, it’s necessary. Without this rule, the union would have no options, no place to turn. All a company would have to do is put on their long face and tell the union negotiators that, unfortunately, if the employees were granted the raises they asked for, everybody would soon be out on the street looking for work. It’s a game-stopper.

True, there are ways around this. Companies whose earnings are reported in the Wall Street Journal have no choice but to shift tactics. What they do is pit one plant against another (“whipsawing”), ominously hinting that only the low-cost facilities are going to have a future. But companies can’t pretend to be poorer than they are; it’s a violation of federal labor law.

In those rare instances where a company actually does plead poverty, they are required to open their books to either the union or an agreed upon third party (an independent accounting firm), and this third party, after examining the company’s books and assessing the damage, reports its findings.

I saw this happen once with a local in our International. Because the tiny, 70-year old paper company was trying to compete in a market increasingly dominated by the conglomerates, it told the union that not only couldn’t it afford wage increases, it would require massive, across-the-board concessions to have any chance of staying afloat.

Although the union knew the company was struggling, it had no idea things were this bad. When the union asked that outside auditors be brought in, the company surprised them by throwing open its books. “Here,” they said, “look at the numbers yourself. We’ve nothing to hide.” It was bad news all the way around. They were going broke (alas, they went out of business two years later).

At the other end of the spectrum you have what is currently happening at the Mott apple juice plant in Williamson, New York. At Mott, owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), 305 hourly workers, members of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers (RWDSU/UFCW) Local 220, have been on strike for more than three months, having walked out on May 23. The union is resisting massive pay cuts and other concessions.

Despite record productivity and exorbitant profits, DPS has decided to reward Mott’s competent and loyal workforce by attempting to chisel them out of as much of their wages and benefits as possible—as much as the market will bear. Why are they doing it? Why are they ravaging the very people who made these profits possible? Because they can.

As a publicly traded corporation, DPS is utilizing the classic Wall Street argument, telling the union that the reason it’s screwing the workers out of their money is because it has a greater obligation—i.e., to maximize shareholder returns. Meanwhile, Larry Young, the company’s CEO, earned $6.5 million in 2009, double what he made in 2007.

And it’s not as if the Mott folks are raking it in. Seventy-percent of the workers at Mott earn less than $19/hour. Even at the full $19/hr., if you work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, with no time off, it computes to $39,520 before taxes, which, for a family of four, doesn’t come close to gaining entry to the middle-class. Even in these recessionary times, $40K is a subsistence income.

Rewarding shareholders at the expense of the men and women who actually produce the goods evokes the Vietnam war. Americans telling Vietnamese peasants that, while they regret the horrors of napalm, they own stock in Dow Chemical. Or, as Tom Hagen said to Santino Correlone in The Godfather, “It’s business, Sonny!”

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.

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  1. hayate said on August 28th, 2010 at 7:27pm #

    Hormel Strike a Key Event in Nation’s Labor History
    by Peter Rachleff


    “This new corporate agenda, named “neoliberalism” for its classical hostility to the state’s playing a leading economic role, on the one hand, and its celebration of the free market, on the other, has succeeded in transferring wealth from working people to the elite. The U.S. has been returned to the standards of inequality which marked our economy in the late 1920s, after more than half a century of a rising tide which was lifting all our boats. Policies and practices adopted since 1980 have benefitted only the very rich, leaving most of us floundering well before the Great Recession of 2008. Neoliberalism has meant, for most people in the world, the demand to work harder and to receive less for it. But the Great Recession has revealed that neoliberalism has not brought growth and prosperity to the U.S. or anywhere else, for that matter. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the Hormel strike of 1985-1986, on the heroism and creativity of its participants, and on the nature of the opposition they faced. We may yet learn from our past to build a better future.”

    First, eliminate zionism, the most insidious tool of the fascist oligarchy, and disempower it’s adherents. Then liquidate the corporate structure completely.