"Like any other company, we regularly review compensation and health benefits and make adjustments where appropriate to ensure that they remain competitive in the marketplace," said Coke spokesman Ishmael Arebalos.
Smitherman and other workers complained of scheduling issues, and a pay system known as "Chinese overtime." The Texas Workforce Commission's website says the system is welcomed by employers because it results in "a diminishing regular rate of pay, and thus diminishing overtime pay, the more overtime hours worked." Moreover, the Teamsters claim Coke is misusing the method.
Arebalos said Coke pays locally competitive wages and, unlike many companies, has continued to increase pay.
"They did give us TVs in the break room, put in new bathroom fixtures and gave us more reasonable schedules," said Ramos, a production employee and Dallas Cowboys fan, who sports a huge team star tattooed on a beefy forearm and a head of short-cropped hair dyed 'Boys blue.
"Then the schedule went back like it was. And there's been a lot of turnover," he said, saying he is now doing work once done by two employees.
The number of temporary workers has increased and many were given coveted day shifts while he was frequently stuck on late ones.
And the break-room TVs backfired for one worker, T.J. Gilmore.
Gilmore, a forklift driver, said he was fired without warning for watching TV 14 minutes past his break time, which he denies.
Gilmore says he was targeted for being among the first to push for a union. Meanwhile, a co-worker not connected with the union drive, facing discipline for the same offense, was not fired but instead got a transfer to a Coke plant in Michigan, he said.
Coke's Arebalos declined to discuss individual personnel issues. Teamsters organizer Chris Rosell said protests were filed with the National Labor Relations Board over the firing of Gilmore and four other pro-union Coke workers this year.
The collective frustrations, workers said, prompted them to contact the Teamsters. This time, far more employees than before signed a petition handed to management requesting a vote.
Rosell said the union is at a disadvantage because, unlike management, it can't compel workers to attend its gatherings. And it cannot hand out pamphlets in the plant while management has information sheets displayed in glass cases.
On Thursday, as workers headed home after a mandatory, election-related meeting, Teamster organizers and supporters waved signs on the street and tried to engage workers as they drove out of the complex.
Pro-union employee Joe Uribe, who is bilingual, said he was barred from attending the Spanish-language session, where he had planned to contest arguments by Crossroads consultants. "They say whatever they want in Spanish," he claimed.
A Spanish-speaking employee leaving the plant just after Uribe said no one in the audience challenged anything said by management's speakers.
Ice cream and, of course, soft drinks are served at the meetings, but it's far from a party atmosphere.
At an early September meeting, plant manager Ford complained that vandalism has sharply increased in recent weeks, according to a recording of
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