Coke plant may close

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 4, 2002

The new owners of the local Coca Cola franchise appear to want to dissolve the local workers' union and consolidate the Austin business with that of the company's Rochester facility, said the Austin Coca-Cola Bottling Company's union president, Larry Kelly.

If the Austin plant is closed, it could mean the end of nine drivers' jobs.

Employees refused to talk on the record, they said, because they are fearful their jobs may end sooner rather than later, but Kelly, went on the record making those charges.

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Kevin Morris, vice president for public affairs for the Eagan-based Midwest Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Inc., disputed the union president's statements.

"We have met with the union twice in the last couple of weeks," Morris said. "The company is close to making a decision whether or not to shift its Austin operations to our Rochester facility. That decision has not yet been made."

Morris also disputed Kelly's assertion -- independently supported by workers' statements -- that their hourly wages have been slashed.

"We have restructured the way they are compensated, but their annual compensation remains the same," he said.

Kelly remains convinced his version of the story is true.

"I would hope people in the Austin, Rochester and Owatonna areas would think long and hard before buying any Coke products," Kelly said .

Kelly shared the background of this still-developing situation.

The Paper Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers International Union


Local 7-0578 of Austin has been the exclusive representative for collective bargaining purposes of the employees employed at Austin Coca-Cola Bottling Company for more than 30 years.

According to Kelly, the union became aware in mid-July of the pending sale of the business by Charles Wilson to Midwest Coca Cola of Eagan.

As the former collective bargaining agreement contained a successor clause, the union -- in two separate letters dated July 29 and Aug. 8 -- requested recognition as the exclusive representative of the employees from Midwest Coca-Cola.

However, the company did not respond to the union's request for recognition and on Aug. 16 the union fled an unfair labor practice charge against Midwest Coca-Cola for refusing to recognize and bargain with the union.

Midwest did eventually recognize the union in a letter, which the union received Aug. 20 via Federal Express, according to Kelly.

The union and the employer met Sept. 25 to negotiate a contract.

The union had submitted to Midwest Coca-Cola its proposals for the new contract before the meeting.

The bargaining session lasted for less than one hour and in that time, the employer refused to submit a counter proposal to the union and also refused to bargain with the union over the employees' terms and conditions of employment.

The employer, Midwest Coca Cola, indicated to Kelly the company's intention was "to shut down the Austin facility as their reason for refusing to bargain a new working agreement."

When Kelly pressed the employer to at least agree to maintain the wages and benefits the employees had under the previous working agreement, the employer representative refused.

As a result of this, a majority of the employees, including three employees with more than 30 years of service at the Austin facility, took a hourly wage cut of $3.48 per hour under Midwest Coca Cola's terms of employment, beginning Oct. 1.

Accordingly, the employees' benefits also have been cut or eliminated as the employer refused to commit any terms to the union, Kelly said.

Nine workers are in the PACE bargaining unit at the Austin Coca Cola facility. All are drivers, ranging in age from their early 30s to their 60s.

Kelly described the situation as "on hold" for the present.

If the Austin union employees are offered jobs at the company's Rochester facility and take them, they will go to a facility where the workers rejected an election to form a union just prior to Wilson's sale to Midwest Coca Cola.

Despite the union's fears, Midwest Coca Cola's Morris, says the company is "delighted" to be a part of Austin and "hope we can continue to be a part of the city in the future."

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at