WHARTON — Employees of the Refresco bottling factory and community groups rallied outside the facility on Monday night to demand better working conditions and recognition of their union.
Refresco factory workers also filed a series of federal complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report health and safety violations at the plant. After the workers voted to form a union, the company filed a legal appeal against the move.
"We are working in unsafe conditions, with low salaries," said Anthony Sanchez, a machine operator for the last 15 years. "It's been four months since we had our union election. Refresco ran an aggressive anti-union campaign to intimidate and try to silence us and now is refusing to negotiate with our union.”
On Monday night, Refresco workers along with immigrant rights group Wind of the Spirit and community residents held signs outside the factory and called on the company to start negotiations with their union.
Cesar Moreira, one of the employees and a union organizer, joined colleagues at the rally after his evening shift. Moreira said they braved the cold because Refresco "continues to put excuses" in the way of beginning negotiations and recognizing the union.
"This was a demonstration to put pressure on the company to sit down at the table with us," Moreira said in Spanish. "The lawyers are not letting us have a dialogue with Refresco and reach an agreement with them. We're not asking for 100% or 80% of the company's earnings, we're asking for basic things."
The workers are primarily Latin American immigrants who state in a complaint to OSHA that they have been "getting injured and maimed by dangerous machinery." They often find themselves standing in pools of chemical water and around loud machines, causing hearing loss for some workers, the OSHA complaint says. The complaint also includes reports by employees who said they saw sewage on the floor during a shift, little to no time off, understaffing issues and a lack of adequate training on machine operation.
Nearly 250 workers at the factory reported issues with the plant, according to a letter sent to OSHA by union attorneys.
“We are treated like animals," said Nelva Castellanos, a lead machine operator.
Refresco workers, after a year and a half of organizing, voted to form a union in June. They said the treatment by supervisors, low wages, minimal benefits, sexual harassment, inhumane long hours and an attendance system that penalized workers for getting sick during the pandemic prompted them to start a union.
Refresco representatives did not immediately respond to a request for more information.
Employees' union representatives said two fires occurred at the plant in September and October. No fire alarms went off and the fire department was not called, read a statement from United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 115. The union is asking OSHA to perform an inspection at the Refresco Wharton plant with union representatives present.
"Refresco is the largest bottling company in the world. They need to accept that Latinos have won a union here at Refresco, and we need to sit down at the table now," Moreira said.
Refresco is a Dutch-based transnational company with production facilities in Europe, the United States, Canada and Mexico. It is the world’s largest independent bottling corporation, with a combined production volume of more than 12 billion liters per year. Workers at Refresco in Wharton bottle and ship beverages such as BodyArmor Sports Drink for Coca-Cola, Gatorade by Pepsi, Juice Bowl, Arizona Iced Tea and Tropicana juices.
Jessie Gomez is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com and NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on Morristown Daily Record: Wharton NJ Refresco factory workers rally against unsafe conditions