Coca-Cola US:Teamsters agrees to federal mediation as strike continues

The union representing striking Coca-Cola workers accepted the company's offer for federal mediation, even as it shot back at a letter the beverage giant mailed to employees defending the company's behavior during contract negotiations.

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Refreshments said it reached out to a federal mediator last week after negotiations for a new labor contract ground to a halt amid accusations the company was bargaining in bad faith.

PDF: Coca-Cola letter to striking workers

Members of Teamsters Local 727, the union representing 319 production and warehouse workers at facilities in Nilesand Alsip, took to the picket lines Thursday to protest what the union calls unfair labor practices. It was the first strike at the Chicago-area plants since 1985.

The union on December 9 agreed to federal mediation after polling its membership, but the strike will continue until an agreement is reached, said Will Petty, spokesman for Teamsters Joint Council 25, an affiliate of Local 727. "We are hopeful that this can restart negotiations and help us reach an agreement as quickly as possible," he said.

Mediation will begin Dec. 14.

"We were glad to hear from the union today that they have accepted our offer for federal mediation," Les Parsons, Coca-Cola's vice president of manufacturing, said in a written statement. "Our goal has always been and remains finding an equitable solution for their members."

The news comes as letters from Coca-Cola arrive at workers' homes, alleging union leaders engaged in "false attacks" against the company. The letter, signed by Parsons, said the company had requested the National Labor Relations Board expedite an investigation of charges filed by the union accusing Coke of engaging in unfair labor practices, including stall tactics and intimidation.

Calling the allegations "absurd and just a ploy to stir controversy and create distraction," Parsons said Coke intends "to get the truth out" because the company has "yet to see any proof behind these baseless public attacks."

Petty said the union stands by its charges and is in the process of gathering evidence and testimony. In an unusual allegation, the union said workers reported seeing managers walk the shop floors bouncing baseball bats as they asked about contract negotiations.

"The purpose of them putting out this letter reveals their hand - that they want to divide the membership," Petty said. "At no point do they recognize that the union is the members, that they vote every step of the way."

Parsons' letter noted that the strike means workers will pay full premiums for health care benefits. The company usually covers 78 percent of workers' health care benefits, a company source said, but the union's collective bargaining agreement with Coke states that in the event of a labor dispute, coverage ceases on the last day worked.

"It is incredibly unfortunate the union chose to lead you out on strike right before the holidays," Parsons wrote.
"We regret that it has gotten to this point."

Petty declined to comment on striking workers' health care coverage, saying it could become a legal matter. But he said that when it becomes clear company payments have ceased, the union will ensure all members are signed up for COBRA for the duration of the strike.

In the letter, Parsons questioned whether the union was bargaining in good faith, accusing union leaders of walking away from the bargaining table Wednesday after Coke made a proposal that included annual pay raises, expanded health care choices and an increase in company contributions to retirement benefits.

Petty, who accused Coke of not engaging seriously in negotiations since Oct. 28, said "it would have been a waste of time" to bring Coke back to the table to discuss a proposal he characterized as "unfair and unreasonable." Pay raises, he said, were offset by increases in health care costs.

"We promise you that when union leaders walked out we were ready to work as long as it took to reach agreement on a new contract," Parsons wrote. She added that "pay raises would not have been completely offset by health care cost increases."


Neither side would provide details about the proposals, but Petty said some workers would have seen their health care premium double after five years under Coke's proposed deal.