‘Our health and safety is not a priority here’: Why Refresco workers unionized
Nearly 240 factory workers at the world’s biggest independent bottler, Refresco, in Wharton, New Jersey, have been fighting for years to improve working conditions and win recognition of their union after voting twice to unionize their workplace.
Now, after winning their second election, Refresco workers are finally starting negotiations with the company. Refresco filed numerous appeals and stalled the bargaining process for as long as possible by claiming the election had been improperly run. The National Labor Relations Board did, in fact, overturn workers’ first union victory in June 2021. The reason? An agency staffer conducting the election was five minutes late to the proceedings and the resulting number of workers who didn’t vote due to the delay exceeded the margin of victory for the union. The NLRB agent was delayed while waiting for an interpreter to arrive, which was no small concern given that most of the plant’s workers are Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America.
But as the company filed appeal after appeal, impeding the path to the bargaining table every step of the way, the workers pressed ahead, joining the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America and later forming UE Local 115. They won their second election in May 2022 with a vote of 113 in favor of unionizing and 88 against.
Refresco, the Dutch-based transnational corporation, has production facilities across the world, including in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, according to its website. With a truly global reach, Refresco produced a combined volume of more than 3,220 million liters in the first quarter of 2022. Workers at the New Jersey factory mix vats of powdered concentrate and sugar to produce brand-name beverages like Arizona Iced Tea, Gatorade, and Tropicana. They then bottle and ship them.
In February 2022, the private equity firm KKR bought a majority stake in the company. The private equity giant has touted its support for workers and responsible investing by developing employee-ownership programs. But as Refresco bargaining committee member Cesar Moreira argued in a Labor Day op-ed, “KKR has a much more immediate opportunity to invest in a sense of fairness and equitable treatment by supporting a fair union contract.”
“I’ve worked here for 22 years and have the scars to prove it,” said Licinia Ochoa, a native of Columbia, and a machine operator, after the first union vote. “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I did all these years.” Throughout her employment at the company, 64-year-old Ochoa says that she’s been burned on the job and fallen on wet floors, resulting in lesions on her elbow and knees. She’s undergone elbow and knee replacement surgeries.
Workplace accidents like these, brought on by the grueling working conditions and lax safety protections at Refresco, have fortified Ochoa’s resolve to fight for a union: “The best thing a company can have is a union,” she told me in Spanish. “Without a union in a company, the workers get nowhere.”
In a series of complaints filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last year, workers reported getting maimed by loud machinery that causes hearing loss, along with managing a backbreaking pace of work on slippery floors drenched in soapy chemical water. In September and October of 2021, there were two fires in the plant—and no fire alarms went off. Workers had to put out the fires themselves.
Last November, Refresco was fined $62,226 for “serious violations” endangering the lives of workers. These egregious violations prompted the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) to anoint the company, along with Amazon and Starbucks, with the dubious distinction of being among the nation’s worst companies for worker safety and health in its 2022 “Dirty Dozen” April report.
“Our health and safety is not a priority here,” said quality technician Lida Guevara in a press statement. “During the worst of the pandemic, they refused to listen to us. They made us come in to work and many workers got seriously ill.”
Like many workers across the country, Refresco employees were deemed “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing profit-maximizing production to continue despite workers raising safety concerns and demanding adequate protections.
Management even told workers that the federal government had ordered them to stay open. That was a lie. One manager reportedly told workers that, in the event of contracting COVID-19, they should drink Gatorade, according to a recording shared with and published by More Perfect Union. In March 2020, workers walked off the job in protest over safety concerns after the company instituted 12-hour shifts.
Anthony Sanchez, 51, earns $18.75 as a machine operator and has worked at the company for 17 years. In the first deadly month of the pandemic, he refused to work in an area where he knew workers had contracted the virus, so the supervisor asked him to leave the plant. When he walked out, his coworkers followed him to the parking lot—and their determination to fight for a union intensified. Sanchez, a native of the Dominican Republic, had previously worked at a Goya Foods warehouse represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “A union was the only way to stop the abuses of Refresco,” he told The Real News.
Months before the pandemic hit, Sanchez had grown frustrated with Refresco management trimming benefits and putting limits on vacation time. He also complained about exorbitant healthcare copays and a deductible of $750. A visit to a primary physician is $40, Sanchez told me, while a specialist is $60. “If you imagine that going to physical therapy is seeing a specialist, if the doctor orders me three visits to physical therapy per week, that’s $180 a week. That’s a lot of money, right?” He met with UE organizers in January 2020 with the hopes of building a union with his co-workers. The March walkout soon developed into a full-fledged union drive, with workers eventually voting 114 to 101 to join UE in the first election attempt in June 2021.
In addition to lax safety protections, inadequate COVID-19 protocols, and high health insurance copays, workers have also cited another reason for forming a union: a grindingly exploitative work environment where they clock long, grueling shifts, face sexual harassment, receive heinously low pay, and have had to navigate an unjust company attendance policy that penalized them for calling out sick.
The company’s attendance policy is based on a points system: Workers receive half a point if they are late and one point if they call out; accruing more than 8 points on one’s record results in an automatic termination, but workers say that the system isn’t consistently applied. In numerous interviews conducted for this piece, Refresco workers characterized the points-based system as arbitrary, and they expressed that there was no clear, shared understanding about how many points put someone in danger of termination.
“The point system is just a way for the company to keep us fearful,” said Ana Then, who has been working at Refresco for 17 years. During the first election, Then voted against the union because she had a bad experience in the past with another union where she was charged a high initiation fee and steep dues. But for the second election, she changed her vote. After being unjustly disciplined for missing work when her father died and then an aunt, she flipped to the pro-union side.
At first, Then thought her disciplining was a simple misunderstanding and spoke to human resources to fix the error. She had missed four days from work, but eight days were logged on her point tally. Thinking that the matter was settled after speaking with HR, she was surprised when, soon after, a manager reprimanded her again over the absences. In a heated exchange, she called the manager a “charlatan” and accused him of not doing his job. In response, she was hauled back in front of human resources and given a written warning. “If you are going to be happy with this, I’ll sign it, and don’t bother me no more,” she recalled saying at the time. A model employee who routinely cashed out her unused vacation time, Then was enraged. Before leaving the human resources office, she turned around, and said, “Payback is a bitch.” True to her word, Then helped deliver the union to victory—and was elected to join the bargaining committee.
The path to unionization has not been easy by any means, and workers report facing retaliation and intimidation for their organizing activities. As Ochoa emerged as a union leader, for instance, management put a target on her back. “She was one of the main drivers of the organizing campaigns,” said John Ocampo, a UE organizer. “A few days after the election victory this year, she was contacted by HR and asked to show her Social Security card. They bugged her a few more times after that about it until she told them to leave her alone and go look for it in their files.”
The company was using people’s immigration status to instill fear about what could happen to them if they continued organizing. But workers had already made up their minds that banding together and building a union was the only surefire way to improve their workplace.
“We were clear about what a union is,” said Sanchez. “They couldn’t fool us.” As originally reported by Alice Herman at In These Times, the company had hired bilingual union-buster Lupe Cruz, who trades on his union organizing background with UNITE HERE to thwart unionization efforts. Cruz and Refresco, no doubt, did not anticipate facing such steadfast resistance from the rank and file.
As Ocampo said to me, the company’s fatal mistake was underestimating the workers. “We helped people see through these guys, like, ‘Look who they are. They used to be union organizers. And now they found out that they can make ten times as much helping keep workers down.’ Their whole shtick is, ‘I’m Latino like you, but you don’t deserve any more, and you should be happy with what you’re getting now. Vote ‘No’ for the union.’”
There is, as Ocampo notes, an especially condescending message underneath such union-busting tactics—and, at Refresco, it backfired. “People will understand that so little is thought of their intelligence that [the company thinks] they can just bring in some big Mexican guy here and go, ‘I’m Latino like you, I’m an immigrant like you, you should vote ‘No.’”
Throughout all of this, from the litany of legal appeals to Refresco management hiring bilingual union-busters to demoralize workers into voting against unionization, the workers remained steadfast in their commitment to building a union, and they did. Now they must negotiate a first contract. (The Teamsters Local 997 also have a contract with Refresco in Texas.) Bloomberg Law’s labor data shows that it now takes, on average, 465 days for newly unionized employers to ratify a first contract with their unionized employees. Refresco workers won their union election in May, and contract negotiations began in July—the clock is officially ticking.
Talking on the phone one Friday evening in August after concluding a round of negotiations, Sanchez sounded confident in the strength of the union and its members, and in their chances of coming out of bargaining with a strong contract. He’s seen how management’s lies have been exposed during negotiations. During the pandemic, for instance, Refresco instituted 12-hour shifts, eliminating the third shift, which cut into workers’ overtime accruals. Initially, the company promised the longer shifts were temporary and would end in May 2020, but it kept them in place well beyond that date, claiming it was in response to customer demand.
“The first day of negotiations, the union said, ‘Okay, you said that the customers demand a 12-hour shift. Do you have any communication or emails?’” Sanchez said, recalling a conversation at the table. The answer, predictably, was “No.” “They lied to us. They left it at 12-hours because that was working for them.”
Based on member surveys, the top five bargaining priorities include significant wage increases, fair and reasonable scheduling, and an end to the mandatory 12-hour shifts. Workers had the option of three 8-hour shifts in production, the largest department, but these shifts were eliminated in the name of social distancing during the pandemic, according to UE. Now, workers in the production and blend departments are putting in 12-hour shifts, 36 hours one week and 48 hours the following week, on a two-week rotating basis. The result is that some production workers are clocking 10-hour shifts Monday through Saturday.
Other bargaining priorities are improved healthcare benefits, reform of the punitive “no fault” attendance policy, and better health and safety provisions. So far, workers have won reimbursements for the cost of English classes and the option to take additional unpaid days for bereavement leave.
Back in August, negotiations were focused on contract language pertaining to discipline, and Refresco management was reportedly attempting to erode workers’ Weingarten rights and weaken the shop floor power of union stewards with language about professionalism, insubordination, and respect. Such concerns for “professionalism” would effectively translate to muzzling stewards, limiting their ability to advocate for and defend members, and providing management with more opportunities to cry “foul” over “insubordination” instead of addressing union issues head on.
“If management gets aggressive with the steward, the steward can get aggressive, too,” explained UE’s chief negotiator Fernando Ramirez. “If management says, ‘Hey, shut up, I’m the boss here,’ the steward can say, ‘No, you shut up, you are not the boss of this meeting.’”
Asked why these shop floor protections are so important, Ocampo added, “Maybe the company is used to dealing with other unions that are not rank-and-file and member-led. But that’s not UE. The staff is not the union here; the workers are the union,” he added. “We firmly believe that, and that’s why these workers have been able to beat this company twice in under a year in NLRB elections, despite everything that the company has thrown at workers, because the workers led the campaign. They’ve been acting as a union for two years now.”
Workers have been building a fighting union inside the factory. Last September, they marched on company managers and delivered a petition signed by a majority of the workforce. They have also gone beyond the bottling plant and spoken about their work experiences with the boards of public pension funds, which hold investments in Refresco through private equity firms. They have held rallies outside the plant and filed a complaint with OSHA over workplace safety violations. The company has responded to these actions by raising wages.
Through its WorkedUp initiative, which seeks to bring together worker organizations to support and amplify each other’s struggles, National COSH is running a petition on behalf of the factory workers as they continue negotiations with Refresco.
“Companies like Refresco have big PR firms to do their dirty work for them, but what do workers have? That’s why, with the support of unions and worker centers from all over the country, National COSH created WorkedUp. It gives workers a place where they can document workplace injustices and tell the public how they’re overworked, underpaid, and underprotected,” said COSH’s Melissa Moriarty, a storytelling and communications strategist.
“When we heard these workers’ stories, we wanted to help,” Moriarty added. “We’re activating our network of COSH groups around the country to support these workers because we want Refresco to know that consumers are outraged by the working conditions at their bottling plant.”