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Striking Mott’s plant workers OK new contract

A nearly four-month-long strike at a Mott’s apple juice plant in western New York has been settled by a new labor contract between Texas-based owner Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. and a union representing about 300 workers.

Hourly employees at the factory in Williamson, 30 miles east of Rochester, will return to work next Monday after voting 185-62 in favor of a contract that includes a three-year wage freeze, officials with Dr Pepper Snapple and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said Tuesday.

The workers walked out May 23 over proposed wage and benefit reductions, saying it was unfair of the beverage conglomerate to demand a $1.50-an-hour pay cut and other concessions after reporting record net income of $555 million in 2009.

The Plano, Texas-based company, whose products include Hawaiian Punch, Canada Dry ginger ale and its flagship drinks Snapple and Dr Pepper, said it needed to tighten costs and bring its wage structure closer in line with “local and industry standards” to ensure continued growth in the highly competitive apple juice and applesauce markets.

“From the beginning of our negotiations, we sought an agreement that supported our business, and we’re very pleased with this resolution,” company spokesman Chris Barnes said. “It’s going to support our efforts to optimize our supply chain operations and bring our Williamson costs in line.”

Some 32 million bushels of apples — weighing about 42 pounds per bushel — were produced in New York last year, and the Williamson plant processes about 7.5 million bushels a year into juice, sauce, cider and other products. Plant workers average $21 an hour, while other food industry workers in the Rochester market earn $14 on average.

“The workers were able to preserve their wage rates, preserve their pensions, and they kept their jobs,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s national president. “In this economy, to have jobs paying $21 an hour and maintain those rates despite arguments they should come down to reflect area standards, I think was a big victory.”

Labor unions worried that the unusual move by a profitable company such as Dr Pepper Snapple to demand large-scale givebacks might encourage other thriving businesses to do the same.

“You worry about what it means for working people generally because a company that is not profitable would be asking for at least the same thing,” Appelbaum said.

Under the agreement, the company dropped a proposal to freeze pensions for current workers. In exchange, the union accepted a drop in the company’s 401(k) match from the first 5 percent of pay to the first 2 percent. New hires will get a 4 percent match but will receive no pension.

In addition, employees will be required to pick up 20 percent of health insurance premium costs and half of any premium increases above 10 percent.