Teamster strikers can't shut down Coca-Cola

Related Coca-Cola strike stories: here

Is militant union staging a pattern strike?

A week into the strike against local Coca-Cola operations by the Teamsters union, neither side is showing any signs of budging. The company is importing workers, while the union rallied Friday morning near the Tillman's Corner plant. Some stores and restaurants are seeing shortages of Coke products, though the company says it is making 95 percent of normal deliveries.

On July 12, union members rejected a contract offered by Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated of Charlotte, N.C., the nation's second largest Coke bottler, and walked out. The Teamsters' contract covers about 275 of 300 local workers.

The company locally serves Mobile, Baldwin, Washington and Clarke counties, and all or part of six counties in southeast Mississippi.

The main dispute is over worker pensions. The company wants to stop paying into the traditional pension fund run by the Teamsters and instead put more money into workers' 401K retirement accounts. Workers would still collect benefits they've already earned, but the company, after one last payment, would no longer contribute.

Typically, a company makes its biggest pension deposits as a worker nears retirement, and the union says the proposal is a money-loser for such employees.

"Shouldn't you want to be taking care of your veterans?" asked James Tricksey, an Eight Mile resident who has worked for the company for 35 years and who is a member of the union bargaining committee.

Tricksey and about 60 union members and supporters gathered for the rally at the corner of Coca-Cola Road and U.S. 90. As they picketed, Tricksey and other Teamsters jeered truck drivers and imported workers crossing their lines.

Lauren Steele, vice president of corporate affairs for Coca-Cola Consolidated, said that while the change will save money, union leaders are overblowing the effect, which Steele labeled "misinformation."

Though a federal mediator is involved, there have been no talks since the strike began. Steele said the company wants the union to vote again on an offer that was rejected by a 176 to 15 margin. Jim Gookins, secretary-treasurer of Mobile's Teamsters Local 991, said the union wants new talks.

Steele said the company is importing workers from other operations. He also noted that union members will soon have to pay for their own health insurance — $1,155 a month for family coverage.

"When our volume is 3 percent ahead of last year for July and we're not skipping a beat, they miscalculated on whether they are going to hurt our business in Mobile," he said.

Steele said Coca-Cola Consolidated announced Thursday that it would cut 350 employees, or 5 percent of its workforce, as it gets hammered by rising costs for things like fuel and corn syrup.

"Trying to hurt your employer in an economic environment such as this could be seen as being short-sighted," he said.

Some businesses, especially smaller users of Coke products, have reported shortages.

At 3 p.m. on Friday, Ed's Seafood Shed had not received its weekly delivery, which usually arrives by 10 a.m., said manager Jeremy Penton. Penton said he can order Coke products through his food supplier if drink deliveries stop.

A worker at Planet Fitness in Daphne said the gym hadn't gotten a delivery and was almost out of Coke products.

"Unfortunately, in a situation like this, we're not going to be able to get to some of the smaller customers," Steele said.

Of Clark Oil's 43 convenience stores, 27 are supplied by Coca-Cola Consolidated. Thursday, a store on North Water Street in downtown Mobile had no fountain drinks, and very few bottled drinks. However, marketing director Barry Rose of the Waynesboro, Miss., company, said he has heard few concerns from the store managers about supply.

An employee at the SuperTarget on Schillinger Road said the store is still getting deliveries, but said Coca-Cola Consolidated is focusing on sending its five biggest-selling products.

Jenny Brooks, spokeswoman for Bruno's and Food World supermarkets, said the company hasn't seen disruptions. Neither has Moore Brothers market in Magnolia Springs, owner Nicole Houser said.

"They just called us the other day to see if we needed anything," Houser said.


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