It’s about 40 degrees at midnight on Friday. Jose Bedolla, 43, holds a picket sign on the corner of Whipple Road and Liston Way. He's wearing three sweaters, two shirts, a thermal shirt and pants, three pairs of socks and a beanie.
Now on his fifth day on strike at the factory, the 16-year employee knows how to keep himself warm, and he knows it’s only going to get colder as the night wanes on. But the temperature seems to do little to sway him or the 50 other co-workers who accompany him that night.
“We have to keep on going, we have to fight,” he said.
After spending several months in negotiations with their employer, in protest of what they say is an unfair contract with increased healthcare costs and a meager raise.
American Licorice officials remain adamant that their offer to employees is an improvement, pointing to continued company-paid health insurance, hourly wage increases and an improved retirement benefit.
According to a statement from the company, they’re offering to pay the entirety of the proposed $3,000 family and $1,500 individual health insurance deductibles in 2012, and to pay for half of the deductibles in 2013 and 2014. The contract offer includes a 30-cent retroactive hourly raise for 2011 and 35-cent raises in 2012 and 2013. (.)
But workers said the company’s offer isn’t good enough. They don't pay any deductibles under the current union health plan and want it to remain that way. They also want a 50-cent raise.
Workers also said that they’ve been overworked for the last several years, with most working 12- to 14-hour shifts with mandatory overtime, and that new, expensive technology is slowly pushing out the loyal employees who’ve helped build the company.
According to Rene Castillo, vice president of the Bakery Workers Union Local 125, many of the factory’s employees, many of whom live in Hayward, are lifers, with most of whom have worked there 15 years or more.
“They built this company,” said Castillo, who worked at the factory for 21 years before becoming the union vice president. “We’ve seen this company grow and grow and put new technology in and eliminate jobs.”
Sherry Moreira, 51, started working for the American Licorice Company in 1983. There were fewer than 40 employees and only one building at the factory, which moved to Union City from San Francisco in the 1970s and is one of three American Licorice factories nationwide. Now it’s a sprawling campus with four buildings.
When she started, Moreira made just over $6 an hour. Now 28 years later, she makes a little more than $16 an hour.
A $10 dollar raise in exchange of lifelong loyalty isn’t an ideal situation, Moreira said. “But it’s a job, you know?” she said.
She’d be at a loss without it.
“It plays a big part in my life. It pays my bills. Without this, it’d be hard to get by,” she said.
But she’s willing to lay it all on the line for not only herself, but for her current and future co-workers.
“I’m worried because if we pay up a little now for insurance, what happens with the next contract? We pay for all of it?” she said.
According to Castillo, the union hasn’t heard anything from American Licorice and that the company started bringing in temp workers on Wednesday. They also beefed up security, Castillo said.
Though American Licorice’s statements have not directly mentioned temp workers, the company said business would resume.
“We will continue to uphold our commitments to our customers by making timely shipments and to our consumers by having fresh Red Vines Candy available on store shelves,” the company said.
Castillo has been down this road before. He led a strike last year with workers from Annabelle Candy in Hayward for similar labor issues. The strike lasted 18 days. Temp workers were also brought in, but what was produced had to be thrown away due to quality problems, Castillo said.
So far, not a single factory worker has budged, Castillo said.
“All the people are still together. It’s cold. I got sick, but I’m still here,” he said.
The workers have turned the strike into a somewhat festive event. On Thursday afternoon, music blared from a boom box as workers cooked carnitas tacos and made hot chocolate.
“We’re showing the company that we’re here for the long run. We’re not going anywhere,” Castillo said.
Other labor groups have also shown their support for the American Licorice workers.
Tony Garcia, a member of the Grocery Workers 99% Club, a splinter of the Grocery Workers Union, has asked to hold a general assembly meeting at the Union City strike site on Wednesday. He said the Grocery Workers Union is in the process of negotiations and is supporting the American Licorice workers so that the same thing doesn’t happen to them.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1555, and workers from the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Leandro also came to picket.
“It’s like a family here. When any of us is in need, we all help out,” said Joanne Velasquez, a Ghirardelli employee.
She said Ghirardelli is also in the middle of contract negotiations.
“We figure if it’s going to happen to them, it’s going to happen to us,” said Kelly Cuevas, also a Ghirardelli factory worker.
Velasquez said she admired the American Licorice workers’ dedication to the strike.
“The winter months are the hardest. You wouldn’t stand out here if you didn’t believe in what you’re doing,” she said.
At midnight on Friday, luminary bags lined Whipple Road and Liston Way with a Christmas tree placed on the corner. Up the street, more strikers huddled around a fire. They were joined by friends and relatives. Some even brought their children.
“My mom needs her insurance because I have asthma,” said Jose Garcia, 10. He’s one of Maria Garcia’s four children and has joined her each night starting at 9 p.m., enduring the cold in the six-hour strike shifts.
Tina Marie Davenport, president of the Bakery Workers Union Local 125, said the temperatures generally fluctuate between 32 and 38 degrees throughout the early hours.
“But that’s not breaking our spirit,” she said. “We’re going to be out here 24/7. All we want them to do is come back to the bargaining table.”