labor There Is No Replacement for a Safe and Fair Work Environment
This Labor Day, KKR has an opportunity to improve working conditions and honor the rights of Refresco employees by remedying unsafe working conditions and supporting a fair contract that prioritizes worker health and safety.
Earlier this year, private equity firm KKR acquired a majority stake in Refresco, the world’s largest independent bottling company. Refresco produces beverages such as BodyArmor Sports Drink for Coca-Cola, Gatorade for Pepsi, Arizona Iced Tea, and Tropicana juices.
In May, I voted along with my coworkers at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey, to join the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America union (UE) after years of union-busting by Refresco.
Now, we are fighting to have a number of dangerous working conditions addressed. 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.
KKR recently acknowledged the need to support the employees at the companies it controls by developing employee-ownership programs at three KKR-controlled companies. Ownership Works is a nonprofit organization that partners with companies and investors to provide employees a stake in the value they help create. By partnering with Ownership Works, KKR recognizes the power of supporting employee well-being for its companies and society at large. The program seeks to “improve employee engagement and voice, which can benefit both employee retention and company performance.”
While Ownership Works attempts to create financial security in the long run, these efforts mean little to workers who are facing serious health and safety violations in their day-to-day work. Through employee ownership, KKR is investing in an increased “sense of fairness and equitable treatment, which is a core driver of retention.” KKR has a much more immediate opportunity to invest in a sense of fairness and equitable treatment by supporting a fair union contract at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey.
KKR touts its responsible investing and stated concern for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. However, Refresco’s actions raise questions about how KKR will apply its ESG policy to the company. Refresco has engaged in practices that endanger the health and safety of its workforce and the environment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has notified Refresco of 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 lack of equipment operator training.
Refresco says that it has a business to run and needs to keep its clients happy. However, the dismal working conditions, 12-hour shifts, low pay, and paltry benefits are negatively impacting production at the Wharton plant by leading to 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.
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.
[Cesar Moreira has been working at Refresco for eight years and is currently a member of the union’s Bargaining Committee. He is originally from Ecuador. He works in the Blend Room and helps make the drinks that are bottled and shipped out by his co-workers.]