labor Union Workers Walk Out At Just Born, Maker of Peeps, In First Strike In Decades
Bethlehem - Kenneth Ayers has worked at Hust Born Quality Confections — a job he says has been mostly rewarding, except during labor talks.
"I ain't got no problems, other than at contract time; they've been a pretty good company," said Ayers, 58, a production worker and former union president.
Ayers recalled late-night negotiating sessions with the company to reach new labor deals ahead of a strike, but that was not the result Wednesday, when the Allentown man joined about 200 day-shift workers who walked off the job and hit the picket lines outside the Bethlehem candymaker's Stefko Boulevard headquarters. It's the first strike in four decades at Just Born, maker of Peeps, Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales
"We normally pull them out," Ayers said of negotiations. "But this one here, they've got new people in the office, and we've got a problem with that. They haven't been here that long and they don't know what goes on here."
About 400 union employees went on strike shortly after noon Wednesday over disagreements with the company on wages, health benefits and pensions. The employees have been working under an expired contract since June.
"Workers deserve to be treated fairly with reasonable wage increases and a pension that allows them to retire with dignity," said Hank McKay, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 6, in a statement announcing the strike.
The union said its members voted to strike on Sept. 2 after unanimously rejecting the company's most recent contract offer. Just Born has proposed eliminating workers' pensions and has offered substandard pay increases while upping employees' contributions to health care costs, the union said.
The union said it offered to modify the health plan to save a "substantial" amount of money, but Just Born rejected the proposal. Production and maintenance workers earn between $20 and $25 an hour, according to union workers.
The company disputed the union's account and said the primary barrier to an agreement is the company's proposal to have future hires participate in a 401(k) plan while continuing to contribute to the pension plan for current associates.
Matt Pye, Just Born's vice president of corporate affairs, said the company remains "fully committed" to working with the union and reaching an agreement that allows it to stay competitive, and is fair and equitable for all parties.
"Just Born has been in business since 1923, and we care very deeply about the people we employ and welfare of our local community," he said in a statement. "We want to sustain our business so we can continue to offer good-paying jobs and be a pillar in the community for another 93 years."
Just Born continues to produce Peeps, Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales candies using "internal resources," or nonunion workers and managers, and the company does not expect serious production delays, Pye said. Christmas and Halloween candy production already has been completed, he said, and Halloween orders already have been shipped. Easter candy is produced year-round and the company "is in good shape" with Easter inventory.
But Debbie Harden of Pen Argyl, a 16-year package handler, said the company's Easter orders are beginning to flow in. "So we held out [until now], because it kind of hits them the hardest," Harden said. "They need us more than they think." Workers like Harden said they would stay on the picket lines "as long as it takes."
Pye did not rule out using replacement workers. He said the company would use the non-striking workers to maintain production schedules in the short term.
"However, we will do whatever it takes to continue to meet customer orders," he said.
Privately held Just Born employs 600 people in total, with nearly all of them at its headquarters and factory at 1300 Stefko Blvd. The company produces Goldenberg's Peanut Chews chocolate candy at a factory in Philadelphia. About 35 union workers are at the Philadelphia factory but do not belong to the same local, officials said. They also have been negotiating a new labor deal.
Its non-chocolate candy made in Bethlehem includes marshmallow Peeps, Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales. The company also operates three stores, including one at the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley in Upper Saucon Township, that sell Peeps of every size, flavor and color available. Also for sale are other Just Born brands, plus a variety of merchandise, including T-shirts, pajama pants and jar candles.
Local 6 has represented Just Born employees since the 1950s. The company said there has been only one strike in its history but was not immediately sure when it occurred. Workers on the picket line said the strike happened in 1972 and lasted one day.
When it comes to labor issues in the candy industry, every company is unique, said Chris Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the National Confectioners Association.
Managing sugar prices and complying with new product labeling and rules concerning genetically modified organism rules are more universal concerns.
Just Born, a third-generation, family-owned company, ranks 19th among the top 60 North American confectioners, with sales of $231 million, according to Candy Industry magazine. That's down three spots from last year, when it recorded the same sales amount, according to Candy Industry.
Russian immigrant Sam Born began the candy-making business in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1923, marketing the freshness of the candy with the sign "Just Born." He moved the business to Bethlehem in 1932 during the Great Depression and grew it from there.
ABOUT JUST BORN
•Founded: 1923 by Sam Born.
•Products: Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales, Teeny Beanie and Just Born jelly beans, Goldenberg's Peanut Chews. Peeps and other branded items such as apparel, sold at three retail stores.
•Employees: 600 in Bethlehem.
•Revenues: $231 million (estimated).