Agriculture

If strike continues, Sun-Maid may use temporary workers to get plant up and running

About 250 Sun-Maid workers were striking outside the raisin company’s Kingsburg plant on Tuesday.
About 250 Sun-Maid workers were striking outside the raisin company’s Kingsburg plant on Tuesday. rrodriguez@fresnobee.com

Sun-Maid president Harry Overly said Tuesday that the Kingsburg raisin plant will be up and running on Wednesday, despite a strike by workers that shut down the factory for a day and a half.

About 250 workers, members of Teamsters Local 431, walked off their jobs Monday afternoon to protest their new employee contract. The workers are upset because they will now have to help pay for their health care coverage and were wanting a larger hourly wage increase.

The workers continued to strike on Tuesday, as Overly urged them to return to work.

“We really want to get to the point where we can get our people back to work,” Overly said. “They are the lifeblood of this business and we are seeking an outcome that makes sense to them and the rest of the company.”

Overly said the plant will reopen on Wednesday with about 50 to 75 non-union workers. He also did not rule out the possibility of hiring temporary workers, especially as the peak of the raisin harvest approaches in the next two to three weeks.

“We have taken steps to ensure that we can service our customers and growers,” Overly said. “We also welcome anyone who is outside to come back to work. They are more than welcome.”

At this stage, Overly said the ball is in the union’s court. He said that despite more than a month of negotiations between Sun-Maid and the Teamsters union, the membership voted down a tentative three-year agreement.

The deal provides workers with a $1.50 raise an hour over the course of the three-year contract. It also requires workers to pay for a portion of their health care costs. Previously, the company paid 100 percent. As part of the new contract, workers will pay $70 a month for a individual and $80 a month for a family.

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Workers strike outside the Sun-Maid plant in Kingsburg on Tuesday. Robert Rodriguez rrodriguez@fresnobee.com

Several striking workers said the combination of health care costs and smaller-than-expected wage increase is unfair.

Many on the picket line have worked at the Bethel Avenue raisin plant for years. Among those is Charanjit Singh, a 20-year employee who does quality control. She said she is proud of working for Sun-Maid, but believes management has not presented a fair offer. Singh would like at least a $1 an hour raise for every year of the contract, not 50 cents a year.

“We feel as though the company is trying to squeeze us by giving us such a small raise,” she said. “Many of us have families who depend on us, but with these increases it is going to get harder and harder.”

Manuel Macias, a forklift driver and 27-year employee, said employees deserve more than what the company is offering.

“We will stay out as long as it takes for the company to realize we matter,” Macias said.

Chicago transplant Harry Overly, the new CEO and president of Sun-Maid, brings new leadership to the iconic raisin brand founded in 1912.

But Overly said that in today’s economy most companies no longer provide 100 percent employer-paid health care coverage.

“Typically, the cost is shared, 50 percent by the company and 50 percent by the employee,” he said. “The gold standard has been an 80 percent-20 percent split and we would still be way above that.”

Sun-Maid employees would be paying between 9 to 13 percent, depending on the type of coverage, single versus family.

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Union representative Sara Maldonado said that while it is somewhat rare for companies to pay 100 percent of their employees’ health care benefit, it still happens – so why not Sun-Maid? She said Overly has big plans for the company, including boosting revenues with new products and national advertising campaigns.

“We are trying to be realistic,” she said. “If the company does do well, why not give us a slice of that pie? We don’t want the whole thing, just a little portion.”

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