News Column

Coca-Cola Fighting Union Battle in Fort Worth

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The Coca-Cola Co. is opening all the spigots to keep the corporate-owned Fort Worth bottling plant from becoming its only unionized facility in the South.

If a majority of voting employees cast ballots to join Teamsters Local 997 on Wednesday, it could flag an important victory by organized labor over the soft drinks giant. Some 427 workers would be covered.

"It would be earth-shattering," said Ben Speight, a Teamsters organizer in Atlanta, the home of Coke's headquarters where the union failed in an election last year at three area plants. A similar move to unionize was defeated in Richmond, Va.

But success in Fort Worth, Speight said, "would send a ray of hope to the region that it's possible to overcome Coke's pressure tactics."

Locally, it would be a rare victory this year for unions.

Other unions have suffered setbacks, including striking machinists at Lockheed Martin who failed to keep pensions for new hires despite a 10-week walkout, and American Airlines pilots who will have their contract vaporized in bankruptcy proceedings for the carrier's corporate parent, AMR Corp.

The South, including Texas, has seldom been fertile ground for unions. Coupled with attractive operating costs and plentiful tax incentives, the region's "right to work" laws -- meaning all employees are not required to be represented by a union -- have lured employers from traditionally strong union areas in the North and Midwest.

Among other things, Coke's pro-union workers are seeking better pay, an end to what they consider favoritism in promotion and shift assignments, lower-cost health plans, better job security, time-and-a-half overtime pay, fewer temporary workers and less outsourcing. They turned to Teamsters Local 997, which represents drivers at Miller-Coors and Bimbo Bakeries.

The organizing effort at Coke's sprawling Fossil Creek complex at I-35 and I-820 has been countered by a series of weekly mandatory meetings by management. Production workers attend on company time and the sessions -- some in English, others in Spanish -- feature outsourced labor consultants. This is not the union's first rodeo in Fort Worth.

It called off a June 9, 2011, vote after discovering that roughly a third of eligible workers had been overlooked and, therefore, hadn't been canvassed. To defeat that unionizing effort, Department of Labor filings show Coke paid $213,752 to consultants from the San Clemente, Calif.-based Crossroads Group, and they were effective.

Clearly, many workers would have voted against the union last year, even union supporters acknowledge.

"Give us 12 months and we'll fix the problems here," workers say the plant's manager, Terry Ford, told them at employee meetings. And there were one-on-one sessions where employees were asked what needed to be done to improve conditions.

Afterward, some employees said, 'Let's give them a year and see if they do fix things and we won't have to pay union dues," recalled one pro-union worker, Jose Fernando Ramos, 36.

TVS in break rooms

Large flat-screen TVs were put in break rooms, bathrooms were refurbished and Coke gave out pay raises of 2.25 percent.

But healthcare options changed and the deductibles increased so sharply that truck driver Gary Smitherman says he no longer sends his family to the doctor.

"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.

Mandatory meetings

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 the meeting made available to the Star-Telegram. Ford said one supervisor's car had its windshield smashed and another's vehicle was keyed.

Ford also warned that free ice cream would be stopped if someone again pulled the plug on the freezer, melting 15 cases.

More serious were plant disruptions involving equipment being hidden and forklifts parked to block other forklifts.

"We don't need that," Ford said, according to the recording.

Rosell denied that union supporters were behind the vandalism. "They blame us but the place is crawling with security."

At the mandatory meetings, Crossroads consultants caution workers against believing that having a union would automatically bring higher wages. Pay could go up, remain the same or possibly even decline, they said, according to the recording. And even if wages went down, workers still would have to fork over union dues, they were told.

One consultant, Mike Penn, called "misleading propaganda" a union flyer that purported to show that hourly wages were $2.45 to $8 higher on average at unionized Coke plants.

Those plants are in high-cost states, Penn argued. And he cited a Coke worker transferred to Atlanta from New York where $3 less an hour gets him a comfortable home instead of a cramped apartment.

But wages at the Fort Worth plant still are generally lower than those paid in the only unionized Coke plant in the South, which is owned by Coca-Cola United, an independent bottler based in Birmingham, Ala., where the cost of living is similar to that in North Texas.

In Fort Worth, the Teamsters say a diesel truck mechanic earns $20 an hour. At the Alabama plant, a mechanic gets almost 14 percent more -- $22.74 -- and next July it goes up to $23.37, according to the most recent contract obtained by the Star-Telegram.

The lowest-paid warehouse worker in Fort Worth gets $12.50 an hour; in Birmingham, the lowest hourly wage is $17.96, and will rise to $18.45.

Former union star

At the plant meeting, a polished Crossroads partner named Steve Beyer told workers he had personally negotiated contracts for Coke at union plants a number of times.

And who, he asked, does the Teamsters have at the bargaining table? "Just someone from the union hall."

Actually, the well-spoken Beyer was himself once that guy from the union hall.

He was a rising star at Local 681 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union near Anaheim, Calif., where he negotiated contracts with numerous Orange County hotels, including Disney properties, and became president at 36.

But things fell apart when he fired a 42-year-old woman organizer who had been raped on the job at gunpoint and was taking too long to return to work, according to lengthy stories in The Los Angeles Times.

Beyer declined to speak with the Star-Telegram, Coke said.

At the time, however, Beyer was quoted as saying that firing the rape victim was the hardest decision he had ever made, but that he had been pressured by other women organizers who complained of a heavier workload caused by their co-worker's recovery.

The union was cited by state authorities for not having a rape prevention program and Beyer, who narrowly lost his re-election bid to a woman organizer in June 1992, soon became a labor consultant for Disney and other large employers he had once opposed.

Outside the Fort Worth plant, Coke employee Uribe proudly sported pro-union buttons on his uniform and said workers like him no longer bought into what he considered superficial improvements of the past year.

"There's no remote for the TV," joked Uribe, a 43-year-old forklift driver.

Then he looked out of his car window and said: "We don't want TVs. We want better pay. We want respect. We want our voices heard."