Union workers were shocked when Mott's parent company — despite a profit of $555 million last year — demanded massive contract concessions.

Among the many TV ad jingles sadly cluttering my brain since childhood is the one that went, “The finest apples from Apple Land/Make Mott’s Apple Sauce taste grand!”

A branchful of the juicy, singing fruit would belt it out at the end of commercials that urged us to use applesauce to accompany meats, slather onto bread, spoon on top of ice cream, spackle drywall, you name it.

The Mott’s commercials were especially meaningful to those of us who grew up in Apple Land — western New York, not far from the town of Williamson, where workers at a Mott’s factory have been out on strike since May 23. Whether the members of Local 220 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union win or lose could play a role in determining the future of organized labor — and the vanishing American middle class.

Mott’s purchases more than half of all the apples produced in New York State and has gone through a number of acquisitions and consolidations since the company began in 1842.

Today it’s owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), based in Plano, Texas. Ever since the takeover, union members claim, the family spirit at the factory that once included an effective worker-management safety committee, Christmas parties, Easter hams and company picnics has been destroyed. Corporate greed, they say, has marched in with a vengeance.

I first met Bruce Beal, Local 220’s recording secretary and a member of its executive board, at an AFL-CIO meeting in Albany this month. (Full disclosure: I’m president of the Writers Guild of America, East, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) Beal said he and the other union workers were shocked when DPS — despite a profit of $555 million on sales of $5.5 billion last year — demanded massive contract concessions; among them, slashing wages by $1.50 an hour, the elimination of pensions for new employees, a 20 percent reduction in their 401(k)s and a change in their health plan Beal says would force members to pay out of pocket an additional $6,000-$8,000 a year.

In an official statement, the company declared that, “DPS workers in Williamson enjoy significantly higher wages than the typical manufacturing employee in Western New York. … As a public company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all of its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”
Bruce Beal dismissed the DPS argument.

“They don’t give a rip about their employees, just lining their pockets is all they’re concerned with,” he said. “When we talked about how the company’s demands would cause our members to lose their homes or have their cars repossessed, they looked right at us and said, ‘You are living beyond your means.’”

Beal says the union has heard that other profitable businesses are discussing the strike and saying that if DPS wins, they, too, will demand massive concessions. But as Local 220’s President Mike LeBerth told The New York Times, “Corporate America is making tons of money — this company is a good example of that. So why do they want to drive down our wages and hurt our community? This whole economy is driven by consumer spending, so how are we supposed to keep the economy going when they take away money from the people who are doing the spending?”

Trucks will now be pulling up to the Mott’s factory gate with this year’s crop. Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, said its members will have to cross the picket line.

“When apples are ripe, they have to be harvested, and growers will be delivering this year’s apple crop to the Mott’s plant as usual. … It is not done as a sign of support or a gesture of disrespect to either side.”

According to Bruce Beal, “Our fight is with the company and not with the farmers. They have to make a living, too.”

Meanwhile, DPS refuses to come back to the bargaining table and on Monday, Aug. 30, the workers will mark Day 100 of their strike. Maybe they can get the singing apples from those vintage TV commercials to change their tune and learn some good old-fashioned labor songs. Like the one that asks, “Which Side Are You On?”

Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.