Unions vs Business: The Mott’s Plant Strike

I’m surprised, yet somewhat relieved that I haven’t read much about this Mott’s strike story.  Steven Greenhouse at The NY Times actually did a pretty good job presenting both sides of the case without bias, so I think I can cut and paste the arguments here for you with just a little of my own commentary…
First, the beef: 
“After nearly 90 days of picketing in the broiling sun outside the sprawling Mott’s apple juice plant here in upstate New York, Michelle Muoio recognizes that the lengthy strike is about far more than whether the 305 hourly workers at the plant get a fatter or slimmer paycheck. 
The union movement and many outsiders view the strike as a high-stakes confrontation between a company that wants to cut its labor costs, even as it is earning record profits, and workers who are determined to resist demands for wage and benefit givebacks. 
“It’s disgusting, honestly, that they want to take things away from the people who made them profitable,” said Ms. Muoio (pronounced MOY-oh), a $19-an-hour machine operator who has worked at the plant 15 years.”
So, the workers are angry that Mott’s is asking them to make concessions, especially considering that Motts is reporting strong profits.  The Company responds:
“The company that owns Mott’s, the beverage conglomerate Dr Pepper Snapple Group, counters that the Mott’s workers are overpaid compared with other production workers in the Rochester area, where blue-collar unemployment is high after years of layoffs at employers like Xerox and Kodak.
Chris Barnes, a company spokesman, said Dr Pepper Snapple was seeking a $1.50-an-hour wage cut, a pension freeze and other concessions to bring the plant’s costs in line with “local and industry standards.””
So are they overpaid or not?  That seems to be a key issue, to me.  We’ll get to that in a minute.  We even get the crux of the back and forth simplified for us:
“Rebecca Givan, a professor of industrial relations at Cornell, said the strike has taken on broader symbolism. “The union wants to tap into the public backlash against perceived corporate greed,” she said. “The company wants to emphasize the depressed local labor market.””
Then we hear from the union head:
“Companies have asked for concessions throughout the history of the labor movement because they’ve faced hard times and needed help to survive,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents the Mott’s workers. “Dr Pepper Snapple is different. They don’t even show the respect to lie to us. They just came in and said, ‘We have no financial need for this, but we just want it anyway because we figure we can get away with it.’ ” 
Negotiations have not been held since May, and Dr Pepper Snapple says it has no intention of resuming them. The company has continued to operate the plant using replacement workers and says that production of apple juice and apple sauce is growing each day. Union officials say production is one-third of what it was before the walkout.”
Ok – so production is down – that’s a business decision Mott’s has to deal with.  As for “financial need,”  ugggh – Mott’s is in business to make money.  So, the relevant question remains – are their workers fairly compensated?
“Justifying the proposed cuts, management says the Mott’s workers average $21 an hour, compared with the $14 average hourly wage for production, transportation and material moving workers in the Rochester area. Union officials say that 70 percent of the plant’s workers earn $19 or less an hour and that many are highly experienced and deserve well more than $14 an hour.”
Well, I don’t think readers will be surprised to know where I stand on this.  It seems to me that Mott’s employees are likely compensated quite well for their jobs, and that it’s a simple matter of economics.  Already paid well (or “overpaid”) + ample supply of available replacement labor + replaceable without serious consequences to the company =  perhaps workers should rethink their entitlements.  (Oh – by the way – in case anyone wants to flame me about how hard these guys work and how badly they need the work and how they’re not getting rich doing this – yeah – no kidding – and Motts apparently thinks that there are plenty of other would-be-workers in the Rochester area who would be happy to do the job also, and who need the work just as bad).
Motts is fighting its own battle in the court of public opinion:
“Dr Pepper Snapple, based in Plano, Tex., has sought to win public support by running full-page ads in Rochester’s main newspaper. One recent ad said, “Mott’s pays more. Would you walk away from a manufacturing job that paid you as much as 50 percent more than you could make elsewhere? That’s what union workers did at Mott’s.” (The company said that it had offered not to cut wages if the workers ratified its offer by April 15.)”
Makes sense to me.  Then, the workers respond:
“The workers, meanwhile, are incensed that the company is demanding givebacks when it posted record profits last year and increased its dividend by 67 percent in May. 
“Corporate America is making tons of money — this company is a good example of that,” said Mike LeBerth, president of the union local representing the strikers. “So why do they want to drive down our wages and hurt our community? This whole economy is driven by consumer spending, so how are we supposed to keep the economy going when they take away money from the people who are doing the spending?””
I think that’s a pretty silly, entitled argument.  If you’re an essential employee, you can make a claim to your boss that you deserve more money.  The person running the business understands who is essential and needs to be paid more when they demand it, and who is replaceable.  If you’re not a standout employee, well, you might be a replaceable commodity – but we’ll get to that in a minute also.  The company responds to this line of attack as well:
“Dr Pepper Snapple has vigorously defended its stance. “The union contends that a profitable company shouldn’t seek concessions from its workers,” the company said in a statement. “This argument ignores the fact that as a public company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.””
Well, maybe a little overboard with the “generates jobs and builds communities” stuff, but they’re right – the company’s job is to make money. That’s not to say that I’m in favor of sweatshops, treating workers horribly, and using and abusing them before discarding them with the trash – but I think it’s already been established above that this is not the case.  We get one more comment from a young union member:
“Tim Budd, a 24-year employee who belongs to the union’s bargaining team, said he was shocked by one thing the plant manager said during negotiations. 
“He said we’re a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities go up and down,” Mr. Budd recalled. “He said there are thousands of people in this area out of jobs, and they could hire any one of them for $14 an hour. It made me sick to have someone sit across the table and say I’m not worth the money I make.””
Ah hah – but this is precisely the point, Mr. Budd – when you joined the union you BECAME that commodity.  That’s what COLLECTIVE bargaining means – you join the union, and they presumably vouch that your skills meet some sort of standard – you’ve commoditized yourself.  Side note:  I have no desire to turn this post into a debate about the merits of labor unions – I’m guessing that if one wants to work at Motts, he has no choice but to join the union.
Anyway, kudos to the NYT article’s author – Steven Greenhouse – for his unbiased, level presentation of both sides of the story.
-KD

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