As employees strike into the holidays in protest of what they say are unfair health benefits, local politicians and Bay Area labor groups are urging the company to negotiate with its workers.
Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski and representatives from Senator Ellen Corbett and Supervisor Nadia Locker’s offices joined the Alameda Labor Council at a rally on Wednesday afternoon at the American Licorice Company’s factory in Union City.
“Healthcare benefits are not a luxury, healthcare is a necessity of life,” said Wieckowski to the more than 100 employees picketing during the rally.
“The termination of contract negotiations is a shame,” he added. “You want to remain at the table. That technique of ‘We’re not talking to anyone’ is never a good idea.”
Wieckowski urged American Licorice to respect the contributions of its employees.
“You guys represent part of the backbone of Union City and the 20th Assembly District,” he said.
All 178 employees at the Union City factory went . Only one employee has since crossed the line to join temp workers at the factory, according to Rene Castillo, vice president of the Bakery Workers Union Local 125, which represents American Licorice’s employees.
The protest began after dissatisfaction with the company’s final contract offer to its employees, which includes increased health coverage fees for employees.
According to Castillo, the proposed health care plan would require employees to pay both deductibles and a percentage of their premiums. American Licorice officials, however, remain adamant that their offer to employees is an improvement, pointing to continued company-paid health insurance, hourly wage increases and an improved retirement benefit.
According to company spokesman Michael Kelly, American Licorice is offering to continue to pay all premiums for its employees and dependents, as well as pay the entirety of the proposed $3,000 family and $1,500 individual health insurance deductibles in 2012, and to pay for half of the deductibles in 2013 and 2014. (.)
On Wednesday, Kelly said the company continues to stand by its final proposal and that the company hopes its employees will take the offer and return to work.
But the workers’ fight seems to be getting stronger with increased support from the community.
“This is an attack on working people,” said John Gallagher, a teacher at Forest Park Elementary School in Fremont, during the Wednesday rally. “Your guys’ fight is our fight. Keep your courage. You will encourage others to fight.”
The rally was led by the Alameda Labor Council, an umbrella organization that represents more than 100,000 workers from 120 affiliated unions.
“We really want to see American Licorice continue to thrive,” said Josie Camacho, secretary-treasurer for the council. “The best way to do that is to get back to the table.”
Mona Barra-Gibson, district director for Senator Ellen Corbett, expressed support on behalf on Corbett’s office.
“We’re here to stand with you and the rights you have as workers,” Barra-Gibson said. “We’re asking that you get the healthcare that you deserve.”
Others at the rally included Abel Guillen, a member of the Peralta Community Colleges Board of Trustees and a candidate for the 18th Assembly District, and members from local electrical workers, postal workers and transit workers unions.
The labor and political leaders were also joined by the factory workers’ children, who chanted “Si se puede!” and wrote letters to Santa. The letters, which will be delivered to the company, included messages such as “Dear Santa, I want my mom to go back to work,” and “Dear Santa, I want medical care.”
After the rally, several of the speakers, including Camacho, Guillen and Lockyer’s representative Ginny Demartini, attempted to speak with a manager at the facility but were told there were no comments at the time and were rushed off of the property by security, who threatened to call police despite the peaceful nature of the rally.
Morale Still Strong
Now on its 17th consecutive day on strike, the factory workers still refuse to budge.
According to Castillo, the workers were asked by Union City police to tear down their makeshift outdoor kitchen area, which violated safety codes and blocked a red zone, as well as remove a Christmas tree that police said was blocking access to a wheelchair accessible ramp.
As a workaround, a fellow bakery union member from Annabelle’s in Hayward donated his RV so that the employees could have somewhere to cook. They also put a tall plywood board with a Christmas tree painted on it to take place of the real tree.
Protesters were also asked to remove any signage asking vehicles to honk as they pass.
According to Lt. Ben Horner of the Union City Police Department, the agency has received a number of noise complaints from residents in the area who say protesters have sounded an airhorn at night and that large trucks are honking at all hours to cheer on the workers. The police have since started issuing citations for those disturbing the peace.
“Many of the folks that live in those areas have called and said, ‘We can’t take this anymore. We can’t sleep,’” Horner said.
“The department tries to maintain a neutral stance in these labor situations. We don’t want to interfere in any peaceful activities,” Horner said. “But we’re trying to balance the needs of the workers and the residents.”
Castillo believes some of the pressure on the city is coming the licorice company.
“Management is trying to break our morale, but we’re sticking together,” Castillo said. “We’re going to be here no matter what it takes.”
Workers will continue to strike over the holiday weekend, though many will be taking time away from the picket line on Saturday and Sunday nights.
According to Jose Zavala, a strike shift leader, all employees will join together at noon on Saturday for a Christmas meal.
Pedro Duran, an employee of the company for 29 years who has three children and three grandchildren, said it’s particularly tough to strike during the holidays, but that it's necessary for them to continue.
“I wish to be with my family like everyone else, but it’s very important for us to be here,” Duran said.