Refusing the Poisoned Apple

Strikes are rare these days (outside China), so the walkout by a group of some 300 workers at a Mott’s juice and applesauce plant in upstate New York takes on added significance: All the more so because the plant’s parent company has gone through a string of ownership changes involving a notorious corporate raider and a major transnational company whose machinations paved the way for the pressure on the Mott’s workers to reduce their standard of living.

The current dispute began earlier this year when contract renewal talks broke down between Mott’s and Local 220 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers. According to the union, management refused to bargain in good faith and threatened to cut wages if its final offer was not accepted. The workers did not back down, the company made good on its threat, and a strike was called in May.

“Mott’s told us we were simply making too much,” said Local 220 President Mike Leberth. Most of the workers earn $19.92 an hour — a decent but hardly a princely rate.

The company’s move to cut labor costs was not born of necessity. Mott’s — the country’s number one brand for apple juice and applesauce — is owned by Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), one of the dominant companies in the U.S. non-alcoholic beverage market.  Last year DPS reported profits of $555 million on sales of $5.5 billion. The company does not provide financial results for individual brands, but the segment of which Mott’s is a part (Packaged Beverages) enjoyed an increase in operating profit of more than 18 percent over the year before.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the inclination of DPS management to squeeze workers comes out of its history of wheeling and dealing. The Dr. Pepper part of the company, which originated in the 1880s, went through a leveraged buyout in the 1980s and was then merged with another buyout victim, the Seven-Up Company, in 1988.  Seven years later, the combined firm was acquired by British beverage and candy giant Cadbury Schweppes. In 2000 Cadbury purchased Snapple from Triarc Companies, the investment vehicle of corporate raider Nelson Peltz, and combined it with Dr. Pepper and Seven-Up. In 2007 Cadbury (now part of Kraft Foods) decided to exit from the American beverage business and spun off DPS the following year through a public offering.

The spinoff was instigated by Peltz, who had become one of Cadbury’s largest shareholders. Peltz then turned his sights on DPS. After accumulating a stake of more than 7 percent in the company through his Trian group, he began to pressure management to sell off its bottling operations.

Peltz appears to have given up on that effort (he has sold off about three quarters of his shares), but he must still be keeping DPS executives on edge. Peltz — a member of the Forbes 400 — has a history of squeezing corporations, to the detriment not only of management but also workers. One of his most notable “successes” was condiment maker Heinz, which Peltz pressured to close some 15 factories and eliminate thousands of jobs worldwide. In 2007 Britain’s Birmingham Post published an article on Peltz headlined “Billionaire Hated by Unions.”

Apart from the lingering effects of Peltz’s maneuvers, DPS may be facing some price pressure exerted by Wal-Mart, which, according to the DPS 10-K annual filing, is the company’s single largest customer, accounting for 13 percent of its sales.

All of this is not to take the management of DPS off the hook. DPS chief executive Larry Young apparently did not think there was anything wrong when he (presumably) authorized the management of Mott’s to seek wage and benefit reduction at around the same time that the company’s proxy statement was reporting that he received total compensation of $6.5 million last year.

DPS has also not been completely diligent about environmental matters. In 2005 one of its units in California paid the EPA more than $1 million in criminal and civil penalties for industrial stormwater and wastewater violations at two bottling plants.  And this year, tests of children’s juice boxes done by Florida’s St. Petersburg Times found that Mott’s samples had arsenic concentrations above the “level of concern” set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and were the highest among those brands tested.

More than anything else, the situation at Mott’s illustrates that Corporate America no longer has any interest in permitting workers to be decently paid. Whereas certain companies once took pride in providing higher wages and better working conditions, that is now seen as a stigma — even when a firm is thriving. Whether to please Wall Street, Wal-Mart or the likes of Nelson Peltz, Mott’s and DPS are trying to force their employees to eat the poisoned apple of reduced living standards. It is encouraging that the members of Local 220, unlike Snow White, are not being lulled into oblivion.