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Coca-Cola workers end strike in Bellevue, Western Washington

Coca-Cola employees in Bellevue and Western Washington returned to work Tuesday, ending a week-long strike over stalled contract negotiations.

Teamsters Local 117 accused the beverage maker of trying to raise workers' health-insurance rates and terminating the company's retiree health benefits.

Coca-Cola quickly canceled the picketers' health insurance after the strike began August 23.

Teamsters Local 117 spokesman Paul Zilli said the move played a major role in nudging employees back to work after a week.

"That was putting a lot of our members in a precarious position," he said. "Some are facing chronic conditions.

"We felt it was in our interest to go back to work prior to bargaining."

The striking employees filed a class-action lawsuit against Coca-Cola last week over the cancellation of their health-care coverage. They also filed charges of unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board.

The union said this week that it does not plan to drop those actions.

Coca-Cola and the union were due to resume contract negotiations Wednesday. The two sides had not met to work out a deal in over two months.

"We hope they'll come back and be interested in bargaining in good faith," Zilli said. "Our interest all along has been to get Coke's attention and let them know we're not going to tolerate it if they won't bargain in good faith, and we're concerned about health benefits."

Coca-Cola last signed a contract with the union five years ago. The agreement came with a 45-cent hourly raise, and required employees to pay a flat rate – reportedly $8 per week – for health insurance, on top of 3 cents per hour toward retiree health-care coverage.

Striking workers said the last deal Coke offered would have made them pay 25 percent of their health-care premiums.

As for retiree benefits, a Coca-Cola spokesman said last week that the company would allow existing workers to keep their coverage, but it didn't want to offer the plan to future employees.

Around 300 workers from the soft-drink maker's Bellevue bottling and distribution plant were involved in last week's strike. Overall, there are about 500 Coke employees in Western Washington.

Limited operations continued during the strike, with Coca-Cola reportedly hiring outside workers. Delivery trucks moved to and from the Bellevue facility during picketing.

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