Hershey’s Chocolate Workers in Virginia Are Unionizing

Some 1,300 workers at Hershey’s Virginia candy manufacturing plant are voting on whether to unionize. It’s the latest chapter in nearly a century of vicious anti-union skulduggery — and workers’ determined efforts to organize — at the chocolate giant.

Workers at the Hershey’s candy manufacturing plant in Stuarts Drafts, Virginia, recently described the factory as “Hershey prison.” (Mjimages / Pixabay)

Around 100 years ago, Ignazio Romanucci, a machine operator at Milton Hershey’s chocolate plant in Pennsylvania, was fed up. Pay was too low and the conditions were “terrible,” with machinery producing deafening noise and temperatures in the roasting rooms reaching “well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” writes Michael D’Antonio in his biography of Hershey.

Even more grating than the physical strains of the job was the disrespect workers endured from management, which in a company town like Hershey, Pennsylvania, governed almost every aspect of a worker’s life.

“We were considered part of the machinery while we were working,” said Romanucci. “Just labor, that’s what we were, dumbos.”

Compare that to a statement made last month by a Hershey’s worker at the company’s 1,300-person candy manufacturing plant in Stuarts Draft, Virginia.

“They think of us as machines that just work seven days a week,” the worker told the Guardian. “They can invest more money to have more capacity so we don’t have to do that all the time. That’s the biggest issue for most people — they’d like to have a life and see their family.”

That employee was speaking of Hershey’s working conditions to explain why he and his coworkers are organizing with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM). The workers are currently participating in an National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, with mail-in ballots set to be counted on March 24.

Much like their twentieth-century predecessors, the Stuarts Draft workers have a litany of grievances. They say Hershey’s has reduced their break time and cut overtime pay. A two-tier employee system further exacerbates discontent, with second-tier workers paid $2-3 dollars less per hour than their first-tier counterparts and denied pensions and sufficient vacation time. In a video by More Perfect Union, workers refer to the plant as “Hershey prison,” with one employee attesting to having worked seventy-two days in a row. One former employee alleges that Hershey’s has an attendance policy so strict that if a worker misses three-and-a-half days of work in a full calendar year, the company sends them to counseling for presumed “mental and emotional issues.” All this while Hershey’s is enjoying record profits — $1.47 billion in 2021.

As the Guardian reports, it is longtime workers nearing retirement who are leading the organizing drive, as they hope to ensure new workers receive the same standards and benefits older workers enjoy.

But the company isn’t taking the union drive lying down, despite two of its seven plants already being unionized. It has hired consultants from the Labor Relations Institute, a union-busting law firm, to fight the effort with the traditional playbook: an anti-union website and captive audience meetings. Workers also allege that Hershey’s is illegally spying on them, monitoring both in-person and social media activity to target union supporters. BCTGM has now filed a host of unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the NLRB.

Such union busting echoes the events of Romanucci’s time at the Pennsylvania plant in the 1930s. After meeting with Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) organizers in 1937, he and his coworkers formed a United Chocolate Workers Union local. The company responded by raising wages and soon, apparently over the heads of top management, negotiating a contract with the CIO. Before long, some 80 percent of the plant’s workers had joined the union. But shortly after the new agreement was signed, the company laid off more than 100 workers in what it insisted were regular seasonal cutbacks, but which the union viewed as retaliation — some of those laid off were union organizers — and a violation of newly negotiated seniority rules.

The union decided to respond by emulating the actions of workers in Flint, Michigan, who just weeks prior had concluded their sit-down strike. On April 2, union president Russell “Bull” Behman waved a red handkerchief to signal to workers inside the plant that the strike was on. The action started strong, with entire departments shutting down. But a significant number of workers didn’t participate in the strike, leaving the factory occupation to operate in shifts, without the numbers necessary to shutter the plant. Further, the action created a powerful foe: local farmers, whose livelihood depended on selling milk to the plant.

The result was a disaster: Hershey was semiretired and had passed control of the plant’s operations to the company’s CEO, longtime union foe William Murrie. Murrie helped organize rallies for the farmers. By April 8, be it spontaneously or perhaps under the clandestine direction of Murrie, those farmers, along with pro-Hershey’s workers (and, allegedly, some outsiders brought in to agitate), attacked the strikers inside the factory. The mob wielded bats, hammers, pitchforks, and American flags.

What followed was the defeat of the nascent union, with workers signing loyalty pledges and voting in a company union, actions that led the NLRB to investigate the company and ultimately throw out the election result. When a new union election was held in 1939, workers voted to join the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union, which was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) rather than the CIO. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled sit-down strikes illegal.

While Hershey’s actions in Stuarts Draft aren’t likely to inspire an anti-union mob, the situation is not so dissimilar: a community that relies on the company to make a living, with cliques and favoritism determining life inside the plant and the company allegedly firing union supporters and otherwise making their lives miserable in hopes of defeating their organization. As one pro-union worker described the atmosphere in the lead-up to the NLRB election, “I walk in every day expecting to be fired. That’s something I’ve carried with me over the months.”