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After a long-fought win for workers’ rights at KKR-owned Refresco plant in NJ, KKR should tell investors how it plans to avoid similar controversies

August 14, 2023

After a two year fight with Refresco, the largest independent bottling company in the world, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) working at the Wharton, New Jersey Refresco plant finally won their first union contract. Two private equity firms, initially PAI Partners and now, KKR, owned Refresco during the period that workers at the company’s New Jersey plant have been organizing to improve working conditions.

Union contract provides real benefits for Refresco workers and their families

Refresco workers won significant benefits to a hard working, largely immigrant workforce that was labeled “essential” but which saw grueling work, poverty wages, and company indifference, throughout the height of the COVID19 pandemic. Workers bravely fought union-busting tactics for two years to win new benefits that include: immediate wage increases, with additional increases that will equal 10-20% in the next two years, improved overtime calculations, better holiday pay, an improved scheduling system that will result significantly reduced mandatory 12-hour, company paid English classes, as well as other changes that will mean better conditions and higher take home pay for Refresco employees.[1]


A long struggle

At the beginning of the pandemic, workers staged a walkout over the abuse and indifference to health and safety at the plant and later joined the UE union in large numbers. Instead of investing in health and safety, Refresco, then owned by private equity firm PAI Partners, hired a union-busting firm and ran an anti-union campaign.[2] Even after the majority of the workforce voted to join UE in June 2021, the company challenged the election on technical grounds and forced workers to go through a second election[3] with ongoing intimidation and an anti-union campaign. In February, 2022, KKR announced it was acquiring Refresco in a deal that closed in July 2022. Courageously, the workers voted at a higher margin to join UE in the second election held in May, 2022, the same month that OSHA fined the plant $60,000 for “serious violations.”[4] For the next year, KKR-owned Refresco continued to delay and engage in tough bargaining to maintain the status quo of low wages, poor benefits, and forced 12-hour shifts.[5]

PESP has been proud to stand with these inspirational union members that embodied the fight to reverse the trend of private equity firms buying up companies and squeezing out profits to the detriment of the health, safety and well being of the workforce.

You can read more about this long fight here.


What next?

As we celebrate the victory of justice, we also must ask hard questions of KKR and its investors: what systems are being put in place to make sure this never happens again?

UE members, PESP, and many other labor rights advocates have built out the Private Equity Labor Rights Platform, which KKR should implement across its portfolio, committing to proactive and enforceable standards that will avoid the headline and economic risk of prolonged labor disputes.

As an immediate step towards this implementation and to ensure that the behavior seen at Refresco never happens again, KKR should commit to ensure all portfolio companies remain neutral towards concerted activity and do not engage in union avoidance.



[1] Contract summary put together by Refresco





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