Graphic Packaging Corporation, the US group which produces packaging for the brewer Coors whose family members are the controlling shareholders, has locked out 400 of its workers at a plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, following a failure to agree new working conditions with the workers' union, Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE).
The old contract between the company and the workers expired on 23 July, and a new three-year agreement put forward on 22 July by the company was rejected by the union, which voted to strike.
The strike was postponed for four days as the local union sought approval for its strike, during which time both parties returned to the negotiating table to further discuss the new terms, which included improved wages and healthcare benefits.
However, the company refused to budge on the workers' demands for overtime scheduling and changes in attendance policy, and since no agreement could be reached between the two sides, GPC decided to continue production at the plant without the 400 workers.
The company said that management and other non-union employees would run the plant on round-the-clock basis, operating the larger of the mill's two paperboard machines and the carton plant. Some of the carton business has been moved to similarly equipped facilities elsewhere, and further relocations could be possible in the future, the company said.
Graphic Packaging said in a statement that it remained confident that an agreement could be reached with the union to enable the workers to return, but stressed that it was prepared to run the plants on minimal staff for as long as was necessary "to provide what is in the best, long-term interest of Graphic Packaging's shareholders, customers, employees and other stakeholders".
The union's version of events is somewhat different, with PACE's regional vice president Bill Gibbons claiming that the union "was not interested in striking, but was concerned with resolving the issues".
"On several occasions when the union requested a contract extension, the company rejected it. The union received a letter from Graphic Packaging Corporation on Saturday [27 July] that said the company intended to lock out our members at midnight on Sunday."
"Graphic Packaging's final offer included mandatory overtime, a requirement to work all holidays, a two-tier pension system and major changes in the attendance policy. The company is demanding up to 20 hours a week of mandatory overtime, which could result in some Graphic Packaging employees routinely working as much as 80 hours in a week. It wants to reduce the pension benefits for new employees from $31 a month per year of service to $25 a month per year of service," Gibbons explained.
"We will get the support of the entire labour movement, if need be, to get a fair contract. PACE is willing to sit down with Graphic Packaging and negotiate a contract that is fair to the workers and the company."
The union said that the Coors family had a long history of poor labour relations, with the brewery itself the target of considerable industrial action and a nationwide boycott of its products in the 1980s.
Although it is controlled by Coors family members, GPC produces packaging for a wide range of consumer products, including frozen and microwave foods, cereal, desserts, snacks, dishwasher and laundry detergent, bottles, and tissues. AS well as the brewer, its principal customers include Kraft Foods, General Mills and Pillsbury.