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Pepsi vs. Folk

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Issue: 38 Section: Labour Geography: Atlantic Newfoundland Topics: labour

July 1, 2006

Pepsi vs. Folk

St. John's bottlers' strike revives age old debate: who benefits from new technology?

by Jacob Fergus

New technology could eliminate more jobs in Newfoundland.
Machines do not need lunch breaks, collective bargaining, food, or even wages. Not surprisingly, they have replaced human workers in sectors like banking, manufacturing and transportation, to name a few. This, it is often said, is progress: it "streamlines" businesses and makes them "cost-effective".

As the latest targets of mechanization, the unionized workers of Browning-Harvey in St. John's (Newfoundland's largest,and Canada's only, privately licensed bottler of Pepsi products), have a different view about what "progress" looks like and who it benefits.

Browning-Harvey plans to introduce a new piece of equipment, manufactured by Swiss company SIG, designed to make a soft-drink bottling production line more efficient. The new equipment will eliminate ten jobs at Browning-Harvey's St. John's facility.

The workers at the plant are striking to force the company to negotiate an appropriate severance package. NUPGE-Newfoundland Association of Public and General Employees Union (NAPE) Local 7003 is representing its workers at the bargaining table. During the strike managerial and security personnel remain on the job, assuming shipping duties by loading trucks with product made prior to the strike.

Rick Kieley, an employee and member of the negotiating team, strides the picket-line and shakes his head in frustration as another truck pulls up to the plant. He is calling on Newfoundlanders to "boycott scab Pepsi products" as Pepsi tries to curb losses by importing product from other bottlers and distributors in Canada.

Kieley acknowledges that "new-technology is good for the future of the company and its people and shows that they are here for the long-haul." At the same time he says he is "disturbed" that the company needs to lay-off reliable, hard-working employees to make way for new technology. But if they feel it is the best decision then "all we want is an appropriate severance package... something we can live on," he says.

At the time of publication, members of Browning-Harvey management had not responded to calls and interview requests.

The issue has led the close-knit group of employees to "lose faith in a company that we believe in and have worked for, for so long." Even friendships between divisions are becoming strained.

Non-unionized truck drivers are paid by-the-case of Pepsi products they transport. To keep earning, they cross the picket line every day and are sometimes "boxed-in" by picketers at retail locations across the city. One truck driver, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that he will "pick up Pepsi from Browning-Harvey [which he gets paid for] but won't fight the picketers if they block me from delivering the product," he says. "After this is all over they are my friends and we all have to work together, but I still have to feed my kids and pay the rent."

NAPE Local 7003 president Jim Kavanagh is proud of his members. "They stuck together, supported each other, dug in and are putting pressure on the company to make change." But he is also frustrated with the negotiating process saying that sometimes "the company won't even meet with us." Chris Henley, a NAPE representative, says that, at a minimum, Browning-Harvey needs to "provide those workers with a future" in the form of an appropriate severance package. Given the average workforce age of 53 to 57 years old, says Henley, "this is no time for a career change." According to Henley, the severance and benefits package that the union has proposed is "similar to if not the same as the severance package offered to management level employees."

"The amount of money [Browning-Harvey] are losing on this strike could solve these workers' problems," said Henley. There have been no official figures as to Pepsi's losses due to the strike but dwindling store supplies could be an indicator, and with local support for the strikers, Coca-Cola could be profiting in a place where Pepsi usually holds a 75 per cent market share in the soft-drink industry. According to Kavanagh, they "are losing a massive amount of money every day our workers are not producing product."

A frustrated Kavanagh points out that "a number of year ago the Canadian government financed new technology at the Browning-Harvey facility because it would generate 16 jobs." But the development of that technology paved the way for the new machine, which will eliminate at least 10 jobs. Kavanagh muses, "I guess my tax dollars paid for them to eliminate my job."

Living on meager strike-pay income, the workers could become the latest casualties in the ongoing battle for companies to efficiently create product at the minimum cost while forcing an aging workforce out the door a few years away from retirement. Already a leader in high unemployment rates, Newfoundland and Labrador remains in the precarious situation of deciding whether to "compete" in a globalized corporate reality by "streamlining" and using technology to increase profit margins at the expense of the workers, or to plot an alternative path.

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