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Workers at Stuarts Draft Hershey plant vote on union

Signs against, and for, a union at the Hershey Chocolate plant in Stuarts Draft.
Randi B. Hagi
Signs against, and for, a union at the Hershey Chocolate plant in Stuarts Draft.

Workers at the Hershey Chocolate factory in Stuarts Draft are now filling out mail-in ballots to determine whether or not they'll unionize. Meanwhile, the union has filed charges of unfair labor practices against the plant. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports. 

Janice Taylor marked January 8th as her 14th anniversary working at Hershey. She was first hired as a case packer, but spent most of her years there operating the wrapping machines. She says her coworkers were great, and the pay was excellent, but there were problems, too. For one, it's common to have to work –

JANICE TAYLOR: … in excess of 30 or more days in a row.

Taylor also cited a culture of disrespectful management, and said that when she and other coworkers tried to address issues with HR, they were given a corporate phone number to call – and nothing was ever done. So she was in favor of joining the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, or BCTGM, which, as theNews Leaderreported, began working with employees on union efforts last fall.

Taylor had been a union member before, with the IUE-CWA at the American Safety Razor factory in Verona. She felt the union provided –

TAYLOR: A more fair workplace. More respect and dignity to the workers.

So while she says she wasn't involved in bringing union organizers to Stuarts Draft, she did openly endorse their efforts – which led to confrontations with her supervisor.

TAYLOR: He came to me and told me that I cannot discuss the union on the plant floor. But they, in turn, were handing out all kinds of union-busting papers, you know, we had to listen to it.

Then, last month, she was fired.

TAYLOR: I was terminated due to my union activity. I've had so many people reach out to me and tell me they're afraid. They're afraid of the retaliation.

Taylor says that on January 12th, she lost track of time and took a 44-minute break when she was only supposed to take 30. She said the only other disciplinary action on her record is from an interpersonal conflict six years ago, when she told another employee to "grow up." Nine days after she took that break, Taylor says she was called into a meeting with HR and suspended. Eight days after that, she was terminated.

TAYLOR: I have no medical insurance … needless to say I have no income … This was the furthest thing from my mind happening to me, when I know I was a dedicated employee there for 14 years. No supervisor ever, ever complained about my job performance. And to be treated this way, it's just so unfair.

Taylor's case is now one of 12 charges BCTGM has filed with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Hershey has violated the National Labor Relations Act. The charges paint a picture of a company using both carrots and sticks to chill union support – sticks like firing Taylor and threatening to discipline employees who talk about union benefits, and carrots like giving out unexpected gift cards, raises, and extra paid days off to entice employees away from the union.

A board representative told WMRA that a regional investigator is looking into the allegations, and determinations in these kinds of cases are usually made in one to three months.

A Hershey spokesperson said in an email that they did not have anyone available for an interview. The email said in part, [quote] "Our Stuarts Draft plant has operated successfully for almost 40 years without a union and that success was built on the collaborative work environment that the employees of Stuarts Draft built together over that time."

The investigation is now taking place alongside the union election process – the board mailed out ballots to employees last Thursday. They're set to be counted on March 24th, and already, the election has garnered attention from as far away as The Guardian and Senator Bernie Sanders’ Twitter account.

The union needs one vote over 50% of the workforce to form a chapter there, but BCTGM Organizing Director John Price is concerned that Hershey's anti-union activities will affect the outcome.

JOHN PRICE: There's no doubt in my mind that these violations have really coerced the workers to be changing their mind.

If the majority of workers do vote against joining the union, BCTGM could ask the board to redo the election due to alleged tampering, like what's playing out now with Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama.

Price says there was a lot of enthusiasm for the union when he first visited Stuarts Draft in October.

JOHN PRICE: They had all these issues, starting with bad management from the plant manager, to, they were told that their premium pay was going to be changed on the weekends. They were working, you know, 30, 40, 50 days straight in a row … It's just amazing to me, like I said, five months ago, how fired up the people were. And now after two months of these highly paid union busters in there, it kind of fractured that solidarity they had.

On a company website advocating against the union, Hershey acknowledges [quote] "education sessions being led by our consultants" that are "highly trained and experienced labor law experts" – that was in response to an anonymous comment from an employee who thought the session was being conducted by people from the National Labor Relations Board.

Taylor says it may be too late for her – but it's not too late for them.

TAYLOR: We're not greedy people. We're not asking for more money. We're asking for respect.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.