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WATCH NOW: NWI Pepsi drivers strike over potential 5-fold health care cost hike
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WATCH NOW: NWI Pepsi drivers strike over potential 5-fold health care cost hike

From the ICYMI: Here are the most-read stories from the past week series

Teamsters Local 142 began a strike outside Pepsi's Munster location on Monday after failing to meet new contract agreements.

MUNSTER — Dozens of workers picketed outside the Pepsi bottling plant all day Monday, waving signs like "no contract, no pop" as passing drivers in cars and semitrailers honked their horns in solidarity.

About 130 truck drivers went on strike at midnight over a company proposal that would increase their health insurance premiums by more than five-fold. The drivers who haul Pepsi, Lipton Tea, Gatorade, Aquafina and Bubly sparkling water across the Midwest could go from paying health insurance premiums of $14 a week to about $36 a week next year to as much as $89 a week in four years, Teamsters Local 142 Vice President and Business Agent Harvey Jackson said.

"The company wants us to pay a larger portion of our health care over the next four years, and members spoke loudly and clearly yesterday that they're not interested in doing that," he said. "We're not working. Anytime a person decides to trade pay for no pay it's got to be a huge issue. You don't just decide to walk away from your job and stand on the street like all these people are doing because you thought it was fun. These guys got families. They got kids. They got other responsibilities."

The union has been negotiating with Pepsi for months. The past four-year contract expired in May.

After a few extensions, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. While they have come to terms on every other facet of a new four-year agreement, the increased health insurance premiums remain a sticking point.

So drivers went on strike, the first at the Pepsi bottling plant since 1994, Jackson said.

"PepsiCo Beverages North America has been negotiating with Teamsters Local 142 in Munster, Indiana, for months to reach mutually agreeable collective bargaining agreements with two bargaining units," a Pepsi spokesperson said.

"One unit decided to ratify the contract that was negotiated. Unfortunately, despite the union leadership committee’s recommendation to approve a fair and competitive contract, another unit opposed citing new term requirements related to employee-paid health insurance costs only after negotiations had concluded. 

"A strike, particularly after productive negotiations and a union leadership recommendation to approve a contract, is highly unusual and disruptive to all parties involved. Despite this unfortunate decision by Teamsters Local 142, we will continue to run our business and work to serve our customers and consumers who depend on us."

Go on patrol with Aaron Crawford, a Cpl. with the Lowell Police Department, as he speaks about joining the force, DUI enforcement grants, and police Jiu-jitsu training.

Production workers at the plant agreed to the contract because they made hourly wages and are better able to predict the financial impact it will have on them, Jackson said.

The drivers are paid by commission, volume and mileage, so their pay varies. They can't project how much the increased out-of-pocket health care expenses will hurt them because they can't predict the volume in four years, which depends on the broader state of the economy and many other factors.

"For some, it could be a decrease in pay," Jackson said. "For some, it could be flat. For some, it could be a slight increase. There's just no way of knowing. If something catastrophic happens or they just decide to redo a line and shut a couple lines down, they could lay people off for three or four months and there's no product for these guys to run. But workers have said they don't want to pay that big of a portion."

The plant shut down Monday with no drivers to take Pepsi products to Sam's Clubs throughout Chicagoland or supermarket chains like Strack & Van Til, Meijer or Walt's. They typically haul the pop and other beverages within a day's drive to markets like Detroit, Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

Jackson estimates the plant produces at least 35 million to 40 million cases of beverages a year.

"Most of the Aquafina in the Midwest comes out of here because of the Lake Michigan water," Jackson said. "The superstores have packages with 36 cans. That's not normal. But they have a line here that runs 36 cans in a case, so that stuff is produced here. So this production facility is huge."

Jackson returns to the bargaining table with Pepsi on Tuesday and hopes to reach an agreement as soon as possible. The strike will go on as long as it takes, he said, with picketers out on Calumet Avenue around the clock.

"The plant runs 24/7 so we'll be out here 24/7," he said.

The shutdown comes during the busy summer season, when consumers often fill coolers with pop, bottled water and other drinks for barbecues, trips to the beach and picnics. Demand is especially high as more people get vaccinated for the coronavirus and return to normalcy, Jackson said.

"It's the busiest part of the year," he said. "People are drinking more soft drinks. It typically goes down after Labor Day but right now it's the 100 days of summer."

State Rep. Mike Andrade, D-Munster, joined workers on the picket line Monday, waving a sign at passing vehicles.

“I will always stand by our union brothers and sisters, whether it’s next to them on the picket line or representing them in the Statehouse,” Andrade said. “A company as wealthy as Pepsi should not burden their workers with such a high health insurance premium — a rate of more than $80 per week is unacceptable. These workers feel like there is no other option but to strike, so I will be joining their fight because no Hoosier employee should have their hard-earned paycheck robbed by an unfair health insurance premium.”

Andrade said he made a promise when running last year he would support local unions.

"As we continue to see inflation, the last thing we want to do is raise someone's health insurance," he said. "Health insurance is everything to some people, especially if you have someone sick at home. You never know what can happen to you. You saw what the pandemic brought us. It's not fair to raise their premiums right now, while we are still dealing with the aftermath of a pandemic."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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