A contentious and seemingly irresolvable strike at the Snokist Growers’ cannery in Yakima, Washington, has strengthened Valerie Woerner’s belief that the future of the fruit canning business depends on greater mechanization and efficiency.
Snokist is a 300-member cooperative having both fresh and processed fruit-handling operations. Woerner, who has been chief executive officer for the past three years, said the cannery has been struggling to be profitable in the face of several factors—cheap, imported canned pears from China, the rising cost of the steel used in cans, and increasing labor costs. The five-year average of its cannery payroll is $6 million.
For the last fiscal year, the cannery turned a profit of $60,000. This year, before the strike, the cannery had been losing $100,000 a month, she reported. Profits from the fresh packing operation can’t be used to offset cannery losses because the cooperative has a responsibility to pay each grower for the specific commodities they deliver, she said.
Snokist’s cannery workers became disgruntled two years ago when the company dropped its health insurance plan as a cost-cutting measure. Unlike most other firms, the cooperative had been self-insured and paid the whole premium for its workers.
After paying out more than 50 large claims amounting to several million dollars, which threatened the company’s viability, the company decided it couldn’t continue that program, she said. It was unable to convert immediately to a monthly managed health care plan.
As an interim measure, it offered employees working more than 1,000 hours a year an extra $1 an hour in lieu of health coverage. About 70 percent of the employees were covered by the Washington State health plan, Woerner said, but the other 30 percent—the better paid employees—were not. Some of the mechanics earn up to $20 an hour.
Workers were also upset when Snokist began hiring its unskilled workforce through an employment agency, as another cost-cutting measure. The company hires between 175 and 200 people through the agency when it is running three shifts, Woerner said.
Workers petitioned for union representation and in a ballot in the fall of 2002, 97 percent of the 239 nonsupervisory cannery workers voted to be represented by the Western Council of Industrial Workers. The National Labor Relations Board certified the election.
Miles Cook with the WCIW in Portland, Oregon, said Snokist’s unskilled workers were suddenly laid off and rehired through the agency at lower wages.
“It’s really unfortunate the company would take advantage of the employees that way,” he said. “They’re doing the same job and getting $2 an hour less, and now they work for a temp agency.”
Cook said he was involved in the early stages of the dispute but not the strike, and referred further questions to area organizer Sherry Scott, but Scott declined to comment. The work at Snokist is seasonal, and the unskilled employees from the agency are moved around from company to company.
Greg Babcock, chair of the Snokist board, acknowledged there is dissatisfaction when employees’ pay and benefits are cut, but said some of the employees weren’t unhappy with the new arrangement because Snokist could only offer work for a few months a year whereas the agency was able to place them in other jobs so they had work year round.
Negotiations with the union began in 2003 and focused initially on hours of work and seniority. When negotiations moved in May of 2004 to pay and benefits, union members walked out in the first ten minutes and didn’t even look at the company’s proposals, Woerner said. They refused to negotiate until August, when the cannery started its busy season canning pears.
“We pushed for more negotiations,” Woerner recalled. “I thought getting a contract last May would be good timing, and everyone would have things resolved before pear harvest came.” Snokist’s season begins in late June when it cans cherries for two to three weeks. About 70 percent of the cannery’s output is pears, which are run from early or mid-August until November, although production ran into December this year because of the strike. Apples are canned between December and March. In August, the two sides reached a tentative agreement, which the bargaining unit voted down.
Woerner said the union seemed to lack leadership, and the negotiating committee members appeared to be promoting their own agendas. Snokist then pressed for federal mediation, and opened its books to show its financial condition. Woerner said the Washington State Department of Employment Security has reported that the average nonsalaried wage in Yakima County is $12.26 an hour.
That is less than Snokist’s average nonsalaried wage before the strike, even when seasonal employees are included. The cooperative offered a wage increase of 25 cents per hour in addition to the $1 an hour extra it had been paying in lieu of health care to permanent workers. It also proposed a benefit of 50 cents an hour for seasonal workers. However, the pay increases would be financed by a reduction in profit sharing.
“I traded dollars from one category to another and gave them a wage increase, because I knew that was a way for the union to say, ‘We got something for you,’” Woerner said.
But the bargaining unit voted down the second offer and on September 23 went on strike. A number of supervisory employees, who were not represented by the union, stopped work in sympathy and joined the picketers. They were fired when they did not return to work, and other workers took their jobs. Woerner said some striking workers had done extensive sabotage in the plant before walking out.
About 40 of the workers either didn’t strike or returned to work, and the company hired between 160 and 170 permanent replacement workers. She said the union predicted a two-day strike and did not think the company could run the plant without them. Some grower-members of the cooperative worked in the plant to keep shipments moving.
The two sides tried to negotiate a strike settlement clause with the federal mediator. A settlement agreement concerns only the conditions under which the strike ends and does not address wages. The mediator proposed an agreement that preserved the jobs of permanent replacements, but placed strikers on preferential hiring lists. In October, the bargaining unit voted down the mediated strike settlement agreement, which Woerner said was an unusual move.
“Usually, when you get federal mediation, there’s pressure to accept.” There is no further recourse after federal mediation and, by law, wages and benefits are frozen until the union and employer reach an agreement. Babcock said as the strike continued, the strikers and picketers became agitated by the fact that the company was still operating the plant. The company bussed workers into the plant to avoid them being harassed on the picket line. “Going across the strike line, it’s pretty emotional,” he said. “It isn’t much fun.”
Woerner said strikers threatened her and other staff and picketed at her home.
Meanwhile, Snokist found that the permanent replacement workers were more productive and it didn’t need as many people to operate the cannery, Woerner said. Into November, strikers said they were willing to accept the company’s pay and benefits offer, but insisted that every one of the striking workers had to be taken back. Since the company had hired permanent replacements, this led to an impasse. Woerner said the company was honoring everything the law required. Strikers could have their jobs back if they were available. Otherwise, they could take a job that was comparable in terms of skills and pay.
Or, they could be on a preferential hiring list for a future vacancy. She said it appeared that the union organizers had lost control of their members. The union’s stance evolved from wanting more money, to insisting that strikers would be taken back on their terms, and then to saying the strikers would bring the company down, Woerner said. The union announced it would organize a national boycott of pears packed by Snokist, which Woerner said was ridiculous, since Snokist does not have its own brand.
The Yakima Valley Peace Advocates Network reported that longshoremen in Seattle were honoring the strike and refused to ship two container loads of cherries to Australia. Snokist ultimately shipped them via Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
The network also reported that the union has had talks with the Mexican Consul regarding possible NAFTA violations by Snokist and is pursuing unfair labor practice charges. Woerner, who has served as president of a vegetable processor in California and a food processor in Texas, said she has negotiated with the Teamsters union in the past, and found them comparatively well organized.
“Once you reach a tentative agreement, they sell it to their membership, and it’s a done deal. This kind of attempt to destroy the company I have never run into before.”