Coca-Cola workers at 2 plants go on strike

Coca-Cola workers in Niles and Alsip go on strike Thursday morning.

Coca-Cola workers at two Chicago-area production plants went on strike Thursday morning to protest unfair labor practices including stall tactics and intimidation as they try to hash out a new contract with the beverage giant.

"They haven't given us any respect," said Carl Maxwell, a nine-year veteran of the company who was among about three dozen workers waving picket signs as the sun rose outside Coke's facility in Niles. "We don't want to be here, but we have no choice."

Teamsters Local 727, which represents 319 production and warehouse workers at Coca-Cola plants in Niles and Alsip, has negotiated with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Refreshments since October for a new three-year contract in which the union seeks improvements in wages, health insurance, retirement benefits and scheduling practices. Their contract expired at midnight Tuesday.

The union, which called the strike at 5 a.m. Thursday, has encouraged workers to spend their eight-hour shifts picketing outside the plants and expects 100 picketers throughout the day in Niles and 50 to 75 in Alsip, said Will Petty, communications director for Teamsters Joint Council 25.

"We'll be here as long as it takes," Petty said. "It's up to Coca-Cola to come back with reasonable proposals."

The last time Chicago-area Coca-Cola workers went on strike was 1985, Petty said.

Coca-Cola said in a statement that it is "prepared to continue production and deliver our quality products to our customers and consumers throughout the region." It has contingency plans in case of a work stoppage that include using its existing workforce to ensure its production lines operate at both facilities.

Union members had authorized an unfair labor practices strike to begin after the contract expired but the union agreed to a one-day delay at Coca-Cola's request to continue bargaining.

Maxwell, who works at the Niles plant prepping Coke's vending machines and is a member of the bargaining team, said proposals the company put on the table Wednesday were "insulting." Proposed pay raises would be offset by increases in health insurance costs, he said.

"We're just asking for our fair share of the pie," Maxwell said. "Get us in the middle class, and we'll keep helping you make your billions."

Maxwell declined to say how much he earns, but members of Local 727 make, on average, $12 to $19 an hour, Petty said.

"Everything on the planet goes up: eggs, milk, Cook County taxes, you can't go anywhere and park for less than a quarter every five minutes," said Charles James, who supplies Coke products to ballparks and fast-food restaurants and has worked for the company for 21 years. "Everything is going up but what we make."

Coca-Cola, which reported 2014 revenue of $45.93 billion and net income of $7.1 billion, said it presented a proposal Wednesday that included pay increases every year, new signing bonuses, a health care package with more plan choices and additional contributions to retirement plans.

"It is unfortunate that the union's leadership abruptly left the discussion and chose not to continue to work toward an agreement," a spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday night. "We were ready to work as long as it took to find a solution.

"The union leadership chose misleading rhetoric and false attacks instead of finding common ground. We hope to reach a resolution in the near future and will continue to negotiate in good faith with the union leadership."

Coke added that it has reached out to a federal mediator for help.

Petty, who said the union has met with Coke 12 times since Oct. 28, said "they've already had so much time."

Teamsters Local 727 filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board last week, alleging Coke engaged in bad-faith "surface" bargaining and that managers intimidated workers by walking the shop floor casually carrying baseball bats while asking how contract negotiations were going. The union also alleges the company solicited contract proposals directly from workers and refused to fulfill multiple information requests from the union.

In addition to pay and benefits, the union wants the new contract to address "mandatory overtime," Petty said. Some workers go into work not knowing if they will be instructed to stay several hours after their regular shift ends, making it difficult to plan their lives, he said.

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