Mott’s 114-Day Strike Comes to an End

On September 13, the 300 members of RWDSU (Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union)  Local 220 voted to return to work at their Mott’s apple juice plant in Williamson, New York, after being on strike for a staggering 114 days.  While they weren’t able to prevent some concessions from being included in the final settlement, they were able to hold back the most toxic ones.

Mott’s parent company, Dr. Pepper-Snapple, had tried to jam a $1.50 per hour pay cut down the workers’ throats, even though the plant was highly productive and the company was earning record profits.  Question:  Why did Mott’s insist on the pay cut when they didn’t need it?  Answer:  Because they could.  To the union’s credit, they realized this was a naked power play and had the courage and determination to resist it.

According to one of the RWDSU’s representatives, a Mott’s lawyer associated with the negotiation is reported to have told the union that “….anyone who couldn’t afford a $3.00 per hour pay-cut was living beyond their means.”  This glib and cold-hearted “plantation mentality” of Mott’s management is what helped launch the strike.

All of which sparks a memory.  A few months after we returned from our 57-day strike against the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, a company executive — a vice-president touring the corporation’s west coast facilities — took me aside and made what he thought was a profound observation: “You guys may not realize it,” he said sagely, “but the threat of a strike is far more effective than a strike itself.”

While he was obviously playing me like a violin, hoping to dissuade us from ever again hitting the bricks, his observation, in theory, was accurate.  If a strike threat is taken seriously, it can, indeed, get a management negotiating team to loosen up and avert a shutdown.  And to that extent, a threat is more effective than a strike because people don’t lose wages or risk forfeiting their jobs to permanent replacements.

But there was a critical flaw in his observation; namely, it doesn’t work.  And the reason it doesn’t work is that no self-respecting management negotiator is going to respond to the saber-rattling because, while union negotiators regularly pound the table, drop ominous hints, or issue outright threats, very few unions actually pull the plug.

Consider: There are hundreds — if not thousands — of contract bargains each year, but only a handful of strikes.  And that’s not because these companies acquiesce to union demands; far from it.  It’s because these companies dare the union to follow through on their threats….and nothing happens.

Despite what management wants us to believe, strikes are effective.  Not only is the decision to withdraw their labor the only tactical weapon available to a union, a strike proves that they’re serious, that they’re committed; it proves they have the membership behind them; and, most importantly, it proves they know how to fight.

As useful as strikes can be, boycotts are a bit more complicated.  On paper, of course, boycotts are wildly appealing, offering the promise of combat without the blood-letting.  A union wants to exert additional leverage by inflicting economic pain, so it attempts to mobilize a boycott of the company’s product(s), hoping to stampede management back to the bargaining table.

The ideal boycott plays out like this:  You’ve been on strike only two weeks, but the national boycott you launched has already cut into the company’s sales so dramatically, management is forced to return to the table and negotiate a settlement.  With a new contract under your belt, you return to work, the boycott is lifted, customers once again begin buying the company’s product, and life goes on.

Alas, they rarely turn out this way.  Although there have been some notable exceptions — the AFL-CIO’s Coors beer boycott in the mid-1980s stands out as one — most boycotts either never really get started or peter out long before having any significant effect.  And in the worst case scenario, they actually harm the very people who were supposed to benefit from them.

The AWPPW’s 1978-79 west coast boycott of Scott Paper is a prime example of one that went bad.  Although it happened before I became a union rep, it’s a story that’s been well-circulated.  During a bitter strike of some twenty-odd locals up and down the coast (back when “pattern bargaining” was still done) the AWPPW launched a boycott that became so successful, Scott was forced to scale back its operation.

Which is precisely what makes them so unreliable.  While most boycotts don’t gain enough traction to make a difference, there are those few exceptions that start slowly, gradually pick up momentum, and then, like creatures in a horror movie, mutate into something hideous.  Ultimately, these turbo-boycotts wind up degrading the very job markets they were intended to enhance.  The Scott boycott was one of those.

While galvanizing public support is exactly what you’re looking for in the short-term, there’s always a long-term risk of consumers discovering alternatives and sticking with them.  In the AWPPW case, customers began buying Crown Zellerbach and James River products….and never returned to Scott.  Accordingly, having lost business, Scott required fewer manufacturing shifts, and fewer shifts meant laying-off employees.

Risky as strikes can be (i.e., loss of wages, replacement workers, internal dissension, lockouts), they always get the company’s attention.  Shutdowns are never ignored or misinterpreted.  And unlike boycotts, you have control of a strike; you can usually start and stop one on your own clock.

So those Mott’s workers who went on strike and stayed out an incredible 114 days deserve organized labor’s gratitude and admiration.  They not only proved to Dr. Pepper-Snapple that they were fighters, they proved they knew how to fight.

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. jlohman said on October 23rd, 2010 at 2:39pm #

    It isn’t over until it’s over, but I wouldn’t be surprised if management said: “to hell with it; let’s give them what they want and start looking for an off-shore facility to do our packaging.” (I am obviously not aware of all of the details, and maybe this isn’t even possible. But if it is, look out!)

    My point is that “offshoring” jobs is a corporate right bought and paid for with campaign bribes. It brought us NAFTA, CAFTA and all other trade giveaways. This political corruption has cost us our economy and will soon cost us our democracy. It has already cost us dearly in terms of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by anonymous corporations trying to win our elections.

    Nothing is going to change until we have public funding of campaigns. Political bribes BUY political spending, which leads to deficits and high taxes.

    If politicians are going to be beholden to their funders, those funders should be the taxpayers. And at $5 per taxpayer per year it would be a bargain. Even at 100 times that. We MUST lobby our senators and representative to co-sponsor the bill at:

    Jack Lohman …