Hershey factory workers in Virginia are sick of company abuses and are voting to join a union. But their union-busting employer has other plans.
There is a bittersweet battle taking place in Stuarts Draft, Virginia. Workers at the Hershey Company’s second-largest factory, located in the small town of about 12,000, are seeking to unionize. In response, the nation’s largest candy manufacturer is throwing the full force of the standard corporate union-busting playbook at them. The Virginia Hershey manufacturing plant employs about 1,300 people, none of whom are sharing in the bounty of the company’s record profits reaped during a pandemic where Americans ate their weight in candy through numerous lockdowns.
Nearly two years ago, Virginia’s former governor, Ralph Northam, a Democrat, approved the granting of about $1.6 million in tax dollars to expand Hershey’s Stuarts Draft factory. Fawning over the project, Northam said, “As we work to accelerate Virginia’s economic recovery, existing corporate partners like The Hershey Company are leading the way with new hiring and investment.” He continued, “We thank Hershey for its continued confidence in Virginia and its people.” Brian Ball, Virginia’s secretary of commerce at the time, was even more ingratiating than Northam, saying, “we stand ready to do what we can to ensure the company’s Stuarts Draft operation continues to thrive.” As a result of its investment, the company became eligible for tax breaks and credits in the state.
More than a year after Northam’s decision to invest public funds into the Virginia factory, the company posted significant profits, boasting in a press release about “stronger than anticipated consumer demand, an improved tax outlook and optimized brand investment, which, collectively, are expected to more than offset higher supply chain costs and inflation.” Months later, Hershey raised the prices of its products, in line with the increasingly common practice by corporations to squeeze greater profits from consumers and then blame “inflation” for the higher price tags.
If taking advantage of public funding while hiking prices for consumers wasn’t enough, Hershey now stands accused of mistreating workers, some of whom are speaking out about grueling work hours, company surveillance, and harsh retaliation. They even refer to the factory as the “Hershey Prison.”
One woman named Janice Taylor told the labor media outlet More Perfect Union that she was required to work for 72 days consecutively. She said, “I was exhausted both physically and mentally.” Taylor and others also detailed how Hershey has created a two-tier system at the factory where newer workers are paid less and have significantly fewer benefits.
Employees of the Hershey factory in Stuarts Draft are also making themselves heard by leaving reviews on Indeed.com complaining that people have to work “so many hours [that] everybody walks around like zombies.” One worker writes that they had to miss their daughter’s graduation because the company would not give them two hours off to attend. Another explains, “Most weeks you work 7 days and it’s hard to get a day off. Really hard if you have a family.” And another says, “You don’t get to have a life… [it’s] work until you drop.”
It’s no wonder the Hershey workers in Stuarts Draft voted on a plan in January to hold union elections to join the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM). Ballots were mailed out in late February, and results are expected to be announced in late March.
According to the Guardian, Hershey is “publicly opposing the effort, encouraging workers to vote against it and hiring the union-busting Labor Relations Institute to hold captive audience meetings with workers.”
The company is so proud of its Stuarts Draft factory being a non-union workplace that it touts this fact in its job listings, such as this one for an accountant position which starts off saying, “The Hershey Company Stuarts Draft plant is a Non-Union plant producing products… in a high-speed complex environment.”
The company’s opposition to the union drive is puzzling considering that since 1938, workers at Hershey’s original Pennsylvania factory have been unionized under the same union, BCTGM Local 464. But Hershey opposes its Virginia workers from having similar labor rights.
The company even created a website to fool workers into believing that their interests are the same as the company’s shareholders, board executives, and upper management. On WeAreHersheySD.com, Stuarts Draft-based employees can read about why the BCTGM—the same union that their colleagues in Pennsylvania are members of—is not good enough for them.
“An old adage reminds us to ‘choose our friends wisely,’” says the company on its anti-union website, suggesting that a corporate employer whose goal is to suck as much labor from its workers in exchange for as little compensation as possible is a better friend to workers than a union could be. A more honest rejoinder would be, “Corporations are required to maximize shareholder profits—even at the expense of workers’ well-being.”
Hershey’s effort to create a fake culture of corporate allegiance among workers using a slick website is an increasingly common tactic, reminiscent of Amazon’s Doitwithoutdues.com and Starbucks’ We Are One Starbucks.
Absent from Hershey’s anti-union website is any mention of how Kellogg’s cereal workers, using their collective bargaining power through the BCTGM, recently ended a monthslong strike and won a new five-year contract. Hershey workers in Virginia are fighting to end the same two-tiered system of pay and benefits at their factory that Kellogg union workers successfully ended by going on strike.
There are indicators that Hershey is nervous about the union activity. The recent timing of what the company called a “planned retirement” of a plant manager who had reportedly faced numerous complaints from workers led a BCTGM organizer named John Price to infer that “corporate management solicited grievances from workers and forced him to retire.” Price told The News Leader, “The company is in the midst of superficially fixing as many complaints as possible to avoid having to deal with their workers organized as a union.” He alleged that the company may even be “violating the National Labor Relations Act by bribing or buying the potential voter off.”
The union efforts at Hershey’s Stuarts Draft, Virginia, factory are part of a growing, nationwide trend among workers that includes big-name companies like Starbucks and Amazon. A successful unionization vote at one Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York, has now sparked similar efforts among more than 70 Starbucks stores in 20 states.
Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are redoing a union vote that Amazon had illegally interfered in as per the National Labor Relations Board. Amazon, which may be the most ruthless anti-union employer in the nation, is continuing to interfere the second time around, indicating its desperation to prevent unions from taking hold.
Even museums are seeing union activity around the country, with workers at major art institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim, forming and joining unions.
And, in early February, the Biden administration issued a set of recommendations “to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining for federal employees, and for workers employed by public and private-sector employers”—a far cry from the blatantly anti-union posture of Biden’s predecessor.
Hershey enjoys a reputation for being a just company. It runs a private school for low-income children in Pennsylvania. Its CEO Michele Buck has boasted about its commitment to sustainability, social responsibility and human rights. In an online talk last year, Buck even said that during the pandemic her company was focused on “the well-being of our employees,” including “their emotional well-being and their economic well-being.”
And yet, counter to this sugarcoated reputation, the company has drawn a sharp line when it comes to the collective power of some of its workers to demand dignity, safety, and fairness.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.