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Labor Says Mott's Apples Are Rotten to the Core

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Among the many TV ad jingles sadly cluttering my brain since childhood (although useful in trivia contests) is the one that went, "The finest apples from Apple Land/Make Mott's Apple Sauce taste grand!"

A branchful of the juicy, singing fruit would belt it out at the end of commercials that urged us to use applesauce to accompany meats, slather onto bread, spoon on top of ice cream, spackle drywall, you name it.

The Mott's commercials were especially meaningful where I grew up because we lived in Apple Land -- western New York State, not far from the town of Williamson, where workers at a Mott's factory have been out on strike since May 23rd.

The job action was started by 305 working men and women, members of Local 220 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Whether they win or lose could play a role in determining the future of organized labor -- and the vanishing American middle class.

Mott's purchases between six and seven million bushels of New York apples every year -- more than half of all the apples produced in the state -- and has gone through a number of acquisitions and consolidations since Samuel R. Mott, a Quaker who made his own apple cider and vinegar, founded the company in 1842.

Today it's owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), based in Plano, Texas. Ever since the takeover, union members claim, the family spirit at the factory that once included an effective worker-management safety committee, Christmas parties, Easter hams and company picnics has been destroyed. Corporate greed, they say, has marched in with a vengeance.

I first met Bruce Beal, Local 220's recording secretary and a member of its executive board at an AFL-CIO meeting in Albany, NY, last week. (Full disclosure: I'm president of the Writers Guild of America, East, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) We caught up again on the phone, just as he and fellow strikers were seeing off a delegation of members headed out to an informational picket at a Dr. Pepper Snapple facility in Illinois.

Beal said he and the other union workers were shocked when DPS -- despite a profit of $555 million on sales of $5.5 billion last year -- demanded massive contract concessions; among them, slashing wages by $1.50 an hour, the elimination of pensions for new employees, a 20 percent reduction in their 401K's and a change in their health plan Beal says would force members to pay out of pocket an additional $6,000-8,000 a year.

In an official statement playing on the region's economic hardship, the company declared that, "DPS workers in Williamson enjoy significantly higher wages than the typical manufacturing employee in Western New York... As a public company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all of its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities."

Bruce Beal dismissed the DPS argument as "a line of bull... They don't give a rip about their employees, just lining their pockets is all they're concerned with." He points to Larry Young, the company's CEO, whose salary has risen 113 percent over the last three years to $6.5 million, and says that workers were told that they were nothing more than a "commodity, like soybeans... When we talked about how the company's demands would cause our members to lose their homes or have their cars repossessed, they looked right at us and said, 'You are living beyond your means.'"

Beal says the union has heard that other profitable businesses are discussing the strike and saying that if DPS wins, they, too, will demand massive concessions. But as Local 220's president Mike LeBerth told The New York Times, "Corporate America is making tons of money -- this company is a good example of that. So why do they want to drive down our wages and hurt our community? This whole economy is driven by consumer spending, so how are we supposed to keep the economy going when they take away money from the people who are doing the spending?"

Trucks will now be pulling up to the Mott's factory gate with this year's crop. Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, said its members will have to cross the picket line: "When apples are ripe, they have to be harvested, and growers will be delivering this year's apple crop to the Mott's plant as usual... It is not done as a sign of support or a gesture of disrespect to either side."

According to Bruce Beal, "Our fight is with the company and not with the farmers. They have to make a living, too." He urged anyone interested to go the strikers website, www.mottsworkers.org, for more information or to contribute to their Hardship Fund. Others have suggested a boycott of all of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group's products, which also include 7 Up, Hawaiian Punch and Canada Dry.

Meanwhile, DPS refuses to come back to the bargaining table and on Monday, August 30, the workers will mark Day 100 of their strike. Maybe they can get the singing apples from those vintage TV commercials to change their tune and learn some good old-fashioned labor songs. Like the one that asks, "Which Side Are You On?"

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Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.