Coca-Cola workers strike in Bellevue
By JOSHUA ADAM HICKS
Bellevue Reporter Former Staff Writer
August 25, 2010 · Updated 9:03 AM
Picketing workers have virtually halted production at Coca-Cola's Bellevue bottling and distribution center with less than two weeks to go before the soda-slugging Labor Day weekend.
Around 500 employees from six Western Washington locations have been on strike over stalled contract negotiations since Monday.
Teamsters Local 117 says the beverage maker wants to raise workers' health-insurance rates and stop retirees from buying into the health-care program.
Around 300 of the Coca-Cola employees striking in Western Washington work at company's Bellevue facility, located at the corner of 124th Avenue NE and Bel-Red Road.
Susanne Larsen commutes to the plant from Olympia for her job as lead on a production line.
"I drive 130 miles every day to get my Teamsters' retirement," she said. "I've been paying into it for the past 25 years."
Coca-Cola and the union have not met for negotiations in over two months. Both sides blame each other for not being flexible on dates.
Striking workers say the last deal Coca-Cola offered would require them to pay 25 percent of their health-care premiums instead of the current flat rate paid now – which several employees claimed to be $8 per week.
Teamsters Local 117 says the deal would cost workers eight times what they currently pay. Coca-Cola does not discuss specifics of negotiations, but company spokesman Bob Phillips said that figure is "wildly inaccurate."
The beverage maker's last deal with the union came five years ago. It included a 45-cent raise and required employees to pay the current flat rate for health insurance, on top of 3 cents per hour toward a retiree health-care program, according to workers.
Phillips claims Coca-Cola does not want to remove existing workers from the retiree health-care program, but does wants to keep new hires off the plan. He said that is the company's policy for both union and non-union employees.
Picketing employees on Tuesday said they're willing to negotiate, and ready to get back to work as soon as possible.
"Everyone else is settled right now," said employee Ryan Shulz. "Safeway, Pepsi – they all have contracts. We're the last one's standing without one."
The striking employees in Bellevue say they've worked hard to make their plant one of the best performers in the Coca-Cola company.
"We've done everything they've asked us to do," said Shulz, noting that the facility has met all of its benchmarks for production, recycling and water-saving while gaining certification through an international accrediting group that monitors quality control.
Larsen says the Bellevue facility was also the first in the nation to complete all three steps of Coca-Cola's quality management program.
"We're one of their outstanding plants," she said.
Phillips said Coca-Cola is prepared to deal with the Labor Day rush, even if workers are still on strike.
"We have a strong contingency plan in place and will continue to service our customers," he said.
(Photos by Joshua Adam Hicks, Bellevue Reporter)