Jose Rivera, the Chief Boiler Operator at Refresco’s Wharton, NJ, plant and a member of his union’s contract negotiating committee, and Cesar Moreira, also a Refresco worker in the blend room and a member of his bargaining committee, joined with PESP Coordinators Justin Flores and Valentina Dabos to provide comment to the Alaska Permanent Fund meeting and the Merced County Pension Fund meeting.
The Merced County Employees Retirement Association and the Alaska Permanent Fund are investors in KKR Global Infrastructure Investors IV, the KKR fund that recently bought Refresco, the world’s largest independent bottling company.
In May, workers at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey, voted to join the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America union (UE) after years of union-busting by Refresco. This was the second time workers at Refresco took a vote to join the union after an anti-union campaign that lasted over a year. Employees at the bottling plant are hoping to see the company address several serious health and safety violations that have occurred since 2015. Since July, Refresco workers have been circulating a petition to urge Refresco’s negotiating team to bargain a union contract in good faith, so that workers can secure fair pay, benefits, and safe working conditions.
The dismal working conditions, 12-hour shifts, low pay, and paltry benefits are negatively impacting production at the plant, causing serious difficulties in hiring and retaining workers. In fact, management admitted at the bargaining table a few weeks ago that they had 48 job openings in a facility that currently employs about 220 non-managerial workers. If Refresco truly wants to maximize its business potential and ensure client satisfaction then it needs to pay better wages, provide decent benefits, guarantee a safe workplace, and stop forcing employees to work mandatory 12-hour shifts.
Rivera shared powerful testimony with the Alaska board describing how a 2021 production based bonus was held up by the company and that the Good Friday holiday was canceled with one week’s notice, upsetting workers’ plans with their families.
Rivera said, “Our warehouse employees earn the lowest wages compared to other Refresco plants in the US, despite our plant being located in a high cost region of the country.
“Many times, long term employees with the necessary skills are overlooked for promotions in favor of newly arrived personnel.”
Moreira shared how Refresco has engaged in practices that endanger the health and safety of its workforce and the environment. In May 2022, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Refresco citations imposing penalties totaling over $40,000 for “serious violations” at the Wharton plant.
OSHA has found that workers faced wet, dangerous surfaces, noise levels at more than double the permissible limit, poor documentation of potential hazards, and a failure to certify equipment operator training.
Moreira said, “There is no replacement for a safe and fair work environment. KKR should ensure that Refresco immediately remedies the unsafe conditions found by OSHA, implements and enforces practices to protect workers, and bargains in good faith during upcoming negotiations.”
Flores and Dabos requested that the two boards “formally write to KKR, asking them to ensure a quick resolution to the ongoing bargaining process that guarantees good pay and safe working conditions so that Refresco will be profitable investment without continuing headline risks related to health and safety issues.”