Hundreds of workers at the Coca Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP) soft drinks bottling and canning plant in Wakefield, England are due to begin 14 days of stoppages on June 14. Members of the Unite union have rejected a pay rise offer of roughly 6 percent on average across all grades. They voted by an 87 percent majority for the action.
The Coca Cola manufacturing and distribution plant at Outwood Business Park was built in 1989. According to the website Food Processing Technology, the site covers 41 acres (equivalent to 15 football pitches) with 72,000 square metres of buildings.
Around 400 workers produce for a range of soft drink brands including Coca Cola, Diet Coke, Dr Pepper, Fanta, Monster, Schweppes and Sprite. The Wakefield site is CCEP’s largest manufacturing plant in the UK and is responsible for around a third of its UK soft drinks production. It is the largest soft drinks producer by volume in Europe.
In addition to Wakefield, CCEP has five UK facilities at East Kilbride, Edmonton, Milton Keynes, Morpeth and Sidcup, employing a total of 3,600 workers. The company operates across 29 counties including in Europe, Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand and employs around 33,000 workers.
While offering a pay rise roughly half the rate of inflation (a real terms cut), CCEP is raking it in. According to Unite, the company’s latest turnover sales figures were over £15 billion, with an operating profit of £1.85 billion up 37 percent from its previous year.
Employed at a critical centre of CCEP’s European production and part of a global workforce numbering in the tens of thousands, workers in Wakefield are in a strong position to fight for a wage which meets their needs amid the cost-of-living crisis. But in their struggle they confront not only the company but a union bureaucracy opposed to the mobilisation of workers’ industrial power, seeking a deal with management to keep production running and the money flowing in exchange for a fractionally larger share of the profits leeched out of the workers by the company’s executives and shareholders.
Unite initially announced that 14 days of stoppages would begin on June 8, comprised of three 48-hour walkouts and two 96-hour walkouts in a two-week period. But the union then postponed the strikes to begin June 14, issuing a press release on June 8 entitled, “Crunch talks get underway to avoid strikes at Europe’s biggest soft drinks plant.” It stated, “Union leaders will meet with Coca Cola bosses today (Thursday 8 June) to demand a fairer share of the company’s mammoth profits.”
Unite regional officer Chris Rawlinson explained the union’s preferred option of calling off the action and trying to push through a marginally improved offer, inevitably still below inflation, using a few crumbs from the company’s table. “Industrial action can still be avoided at Europe’s biggest soft drinks plant if bosses realise that they must pay workers a fair wage from the company’s enormous profits.”
The union has been sitting on workers’ discontent for a year. On June 29, 2022, it announced, “Strikes over bullying and pay cuts could hit Coca Cola supplies this summer.” Reporting company profits for 2021 of £1.6 billion, Unite said, “CCEP is offering the workers an abysmal 21-month pay deal of 3.25 per cent for the first 12 months, and 1.75 per cent for the next 9 months… To make matters worse, CCEP is threatening staff with further reductions to the pay offer, and threatening potential changes to ‘ways of working’ should they take industrial action.”
Nothing more was heard until the announcement of a strike ballot this May.
Workers at Wakefield should draw on the experiences of their colleagues internationally. In the US around 400 workers at the Liberty Coca Cola bottling plant in Philadelphia began an all-out strike on April 16 over the terms of a new contract, the previous one expiring on April 15. The Liberty plant is the largest bottler and distributor of Coca Cola soft drinks in the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The workers were represented by Local 830 of the Teamsters union.
The union kept the dispute isolated, blocking a strike by around 100 workers at Coca Cola Consolidated in West Virginia. After the Liberty workers twice rejected new inferior contracts, the union was able to force through a third offer in a vote arranged on May 8 only one day after the contract details were announced. It offered only small hourly raises over five years.
A World Socialist Web Site article on the ending of the dispute quoted the comments of one worker who took to social media saying, “Turn this crap down. Everyone is running out of soda (soft drinks), now they’re going to start getting pressure from customers…”
To enforce its influence the union arranged for the vote on the deal to be held on a bus driven to the picket line, with workers filing in to cast their vote. The ballot ended in time for the result to be announced and for workers to report on for the 6pm shift that day.
Preventing a similar outcome in the Wakefield strike means taking the struggle out of the hands of the union bureaucracy. Against Unite’s agenda of limited strike action as a prelude to a negotiated substandard deal, workers should fight to implement their own strategy based on determined, coordinated action with other CCEP employees in the UK and internationally to achieve a wage increase they democratically decide is acceptable. That fight requires the formation of workers’ own rank-and-file committees, in Wakefield and across CCEP’s operation.