ATLANTA — More than 2,000 workers at plants in California and Connecticut that bottle Coca-Cola products went on strike Monday, just before the start of the summer season that is so important to the soft drink industry.
The workers, mostly production workers and delivery drivers, were in contract negotiations with Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., the world’s largest beverage bottler with 46 plants across the U.S. The workers walked out over the company’s proposal that they pay more for health benefits.
Chris Roos, the leader of Teamsters Local 1035 in East Hartford, Conn., said the strike was planned the week before Memorial Day to pressure the company to negotiate or jeopardize summer sales.
“Within a day or two, you probably won’t see too much Coke on the shelves,” he said.
Despite the strike, the Connecticut plant was still running Monday. Asked if the strike would disrupt summer Coke deliveries, company spokesman Bob Lanz said, “absolutely not.”
Union leaders say the workers have been arguing with management over health care costs since last fall. The bottling company has regional, not national, contracts with workers, which is why the strike was only in the two bottling plants. The two strikes are over separate contracts.
David White of Teamsters Brewery & Soft Drink Conference said the 400 striking workers in Connecticut and 1,700 striking workers in Los Angeles were especially upset about health care plans for executives that White called “lavish.”
The workers, who are paid $15 to $20 an hour on average, can’t afford higher health care costs, White said.
“These are folks that live paycheck to paycheck, many of them. They’re not well-to-do people. And you have the company giving out huge consulting contracts and lifetime health care coverage for departing executives and that doesn’t seem to bother them,” White said.
Company spokesman Lanz said the contract was fair and wouldn’t raise health care costs for workers.
“We don’t know why they’re striking,” he said. “We offered them a very, very competitive contract.”
White, the Teamsters spokesman, said he knew of no other bottling plants where union members were considering a strike. The last strike for the bottler was a 20-day walkout last summer at a plant in San Diego, also over health benefits, White said.
John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest magazine, said he doubted the strikes would have immediate impact on the bottler.
“Every strike creates some disruption, but as of now the plants are still running,” he said. “They’re the biggest Coke bottler, and they have a pretty fair amount of experience with this kind of situation.”
Coca-Cola Enterprises is a separate company from The Coca-Cola Co., but it produces 80 percent of Coca-Cola bottles and cans in North America. Bottlers buy concentrate from the Coca-Cola Co. and also contribute money for marketing the product.
Coca-Cola Co. owns a stake of roughly 37 percent in Coca-Cola Enterprises, which employs 74,000 people in 46 states.
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