LABOR : Striking Pepsi Workers End 6-Week Walkout


About 600 striking workers at four PepsiCo Inc. bottling plants in Southern California are scheduled to return to work today after voting to end their six-week walkout.

The workers, members of the Teamsters Union, voted late Sunday by a narrow margin to approve a five-year contract offer that they had overwhelmingly rejected on Friday.

Union officials said they recommended that the striking drivers, warehouse loaders and bottlers approve the contract Sunday after PepsiCo threatened to replace workers.

"They played dirty and that was the only way they could win," said Jim Santangelo, chief negotiator for the Teamsters in Southern California. Despite the threatened job losses, workers at plants in Buena Park, Torrance, Baldwin Park and San Fernando approved the contract by a vote of only 159 to 141, Santangelo said.

After workers initially rejected the offer on Friday, union officials said they were considering plans to extend the strike to plants in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. PepsiCo then said in a letter to Santangelo that if the walkout were expanded, the company would "immediately permanently replace the striking employees in our Los Angeles/Buena Park facilities" The letter was signed by Thomas G. Muldoon, PepsiCo's vice president of labor relations.

"If a strike goes on for an indefinite period, we have to replace employees," PepsiCo spokesman Jeff Brown said.

The dispute focused on pension and retirement benefits. The union was seeking a contract that would have allowed workers to retire after their age and total years of service with the company reached 84 years. Teamsters leaders say 30 years of physically demanding work in the soft drink industry takes its toll, resulting in high rates of injury and illness.

PepsiCo said the demands were unreasonable because the workers receive generous pay--more than $15 an hour.

The company's last offer Sunday provided a higher wage increase in 1999, the final year of the contract. Under the new contract, workers will receive an hourly increase of of 55 cents this year, 45 cents in 1996, 30 cents in 1997, 35 cents in 1998, and 45 cents in 1999. This year's increase is retroactive to April 3, the day the previous contract expired.

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