Strikers at the East Hartford Coca-Cola bottling plant have found the plant's closest neighbor receptive to the union's request to boycott Coke, but how much the boycott movement could hurt local sales is yet to be seen.
Teamsters Local 1035 members, who began striking a week ago, plan to hand out leaflets asking customers to boycott Coke at local stores, and will publicize the boycott at Six Flags New England theme park, the Dave Matthews concert on Saturday, and Rock Cats baseball games.
The Teamsters is also funding a small plane pulling a "Boycott Coke" banner this weekend.
C-town of East Hartford, the closest store to the Art Deco-influenced brick bottling plant, has Coca-Cola advertising logos on its automatic doors. Manager William Moronta said not many people are buying Coke products since the strike began. And once the inventory is gone, he won't replenish it.
"We are not purchasing any. We want to support the guys," he said.
About 350 bottling, warehouse workers and drivers started picketing a week ago. The strike has already lasted longer than the one seven years ago, which ended after five days.
The workers, who make about $20 an hour, want to preserve the status quo of health insurance without employee-paid premiums. They say they gave up $2.65 an hour over the life of the last contract in order to have fully employer-paid premiums.
The company says it's unfair for union members to pay nothing into health insurance when all other Coca-Cola employees have to pay in.
Wally Henderson, 50, has been with Coke for 23 years, and drives a forklift. He estimated that if the company's health care cost-sharing proposal were to be ratified, he would spend $4,000 a year more on medical costs than he does now — as a person with a plan for himself and a spouse.
For family coverage, the cost would be an additional $8,000 per year, Henderson said, citing what the union has told the workers. For workers who live in Massachusetts, in-network coverage would be limited, he said.
"We've kind of given up a lot in wages to keep the health care benefit," which is important, he said, because the job "is a lot of physical work."
Henderson, who was picketing Wednesday afternoon with about 25 others, said he had hoped the strike would not last any longer than the last one.
A driver who is on strike, but did not want to give his name, said he draws just $200 a week in strike pay.
"I'm assuming both sides don't want to be out on strike," he said.
Will the boycott be effective?
The company did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Henderson thinks so. "We have quite a lot of support from the public," he said as car horns punctuated his point.
The driver was less convinced. He said while union members may honor the request, "I don't think it's going to affect the sales of Coke. No, people are going to buy it if they want it."
The union says the bottling plant is distributing only 20 percent of its normal deliveries. The company said that is not true. Spokesman Toney Anaya said: "We have received few customer complaints regarding product availability and address those issues as they arise."