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Workers visit KKR headquarters to continue pressuring KKR-owned Refresco to improve safety and working conditions

March 2, 2023

Workers from the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, NJ, attempted to bring their concerns about conditions in their plant to the corporate headquarters of private equity firm KKR today.  It was the second attempt the workers have made to meet with KKR, which owns a majority stake in Refresco. For a second time, KKR refused to meet with the workers.

Members of UE Local 115, Refresco workers shared their frustration with KKR:

“We went to the building, we tried to talk to someone at KKR, and did it respectfully,” said Refresco worker Pamela Burgos. “All we’re asking for is equal rights and our rights as workers. We just want to be able to have a meeting with them so we can discuss our issues.”

“The least they could do is meet with us and talk with us,” said César Moreira, who also works at the plant. “We’re just asking to meet with them and discuss our issues, especially as we are the ones who do the work that they profit from.”

“We feel defrauded by Refresco and KKR,” said Ana Cáceres, who has worked at Refresco for more than 18 years. “It’s been a year now since KKR acquired Refresco and we have been fighting to win our union and first union contract for over a year.

While in New York, Refresco workers also met with staff from the New York City Comptroller’s Office. The Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the investments of the city’s pension funds, had asked the Refresco workers to keep them abreast of their negotiations for a first union contract, as some of the city’s pension funds are invested in KKR.

After talking with the UE members and allies from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, John Adler, the Comptroller’s office chief environmental, social and governance officer, promised to raise workers’ concerns with KKR and possibly re-evaluate the city’s ongoing investment in light of the situation at Refresco.

In 2022 KKRacquired a majority stake in Refresco, the world’s largest independent bottling company. Workers have spent over a year battling unsafe working conditions and low wages.

In May 2022, workers at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey, voted a second time to join the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America union (UE) after years of union-busting by Refresco. Since then, workers have been organizing to win their first contract, through which they seek to address issues with long shifts, dangerous working conditions, and inadequate wages and benefits. Though negotiations are in progress, the process has been slowed by the company’s resistance to making adequate proposals on work hours that address the workers’ issues.  

Refresco workers first organized their union in June of 2021, largely to address issues of health and safety in their plant, and are still struggling for a first contract. Workers continue to suffer from poor safety conditions, with a near-fatal accident occurring in the plant in early January. They are still being forced to work mandatory 12-hour shifts, punishing work hours which exacerbate the dangerous conditions at the plant.

During the same week as the May 2022 election, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notified Refresco of penalties totaling over $60,000 for “serious violations” at the Wharton plant. OSHA cited wet, dangerous surfaces, noise levels at more than double the permissible limit, amputation hazards from unguarded machinery, poor documentation of potential hazards, and lack of equipment operator training. Refresco has contested the violations.

Long hours for low pay and unsafe working conditions played a significant role in workers demanding a union, and workers have come together to negotiate a fair contract that prioritizes worker health and safety.

KKR was recently the subject of a glowing profile by CBS news, which touted the company’s commitment to employee ownership. But the experience of Refresco workers tells a different story, as related by journalist Matt Cunningham-Cook in his recent article “At This Jersey Factory, Pension-Backed Private Equity Takes On Union Workers”.

The workers’ first contract is taking longer than expected. KKR must ensure that Refresco commits to quickly negotiating a fair contract with living wages, health and safety improvements, and an end to mandatory 12-hour shifts. Dignity and respect on the job includes hearing the concerns of the workers when they request a meeting.

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