When you picture in your head the platonic ideal of working in a bustling candy factory, perhaps your mind fills with Wonka-inspired images of your sugar-stained frolicking through a raging chocolate creek. Or maybe you revel at the thought of being unable to distinguish between the saccharine fruit of your labor and your candy-coated lunch. Or, perchance, you dream of cheerful halfling co-workers, all with an unquenchable desire for merriment and skin seemingly made of marzipan.
Or maybe it's just us.
In any event, we're here today with a heavy heart to inform you that reality is indeed a cruel mistress, and the image oh-so-brilliantly portrayed above is about as far from the truth of working in a modern candy factory as is humanly possible to conjure up.
Earlier this month, around 400 employees of Just Born Quality Confections—the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania candy manufacturer responsible for such niche sweets as Peeps, Mike and Ikes, and Hot Tamales—went on strike. The strikers' main point of contention is the candy company's proposal to completely eliminate an employee pension plan and replace it with a 401(k) plan—you know, the kind that employees themselves fund. The company has also proposed a plan to raise employee healthcare contributions—all with no corresponding wage increase. Negotiations between Just Born and the union representing the employees, which began in May, have gone nowhere fast.
This week, the strike took a turn for the ugly, with some employees crossing picket lines. Just Born also scheduled a job fair on Thursday to replace striking workers, all while union leaders claim that the company is not negotiating fairly. The union says it has proposed modifications to the company health insurance plan that would result in significant savings for the company, but the company has rejected them and appears to be hell-bent on nixing the pension plan.
In jeopardy for the rest of us? All those bizarrely neon-colored, mushy marshmallow treats that appear on store shelves months before Easter. We're talking Peeps, of course. Given the long shelf life of Just Born's confections, production on this year's Halloween and Christmas holiday candies is already completed; in fact, Halloween candies have shipped. But Easter—and Peeps—are another story.
What will America do in the event of a Peep-less Easter?
We may have to just deal with it. The workers know the importance of Easter candy sales to the company, and say they timed their strike to inflict maximum pain. Debbie Harden, a package handler for Just Born, told The Morning Call, "We held out [until now], because it kind of hits them the hardest," Harden said. "They need us more than they think."
Matt Pye, the VP of Corporate Affairs at Just Born, concurs that Peep sales are essential to the company's well-being: "Easter is our big season; we produce for Easter year-round. At some point, it will become a concern."
The union is standing firm: "The workers at the company's Peeps plant have devoted much of their lives to producing these iconic Just Born candies. And the company has benefited from their skills and dedication through soaring profits. Workers deserve to be treated fairly with reasonable wage increases and a pension that allows them to retire with dignity," Hank McKay, the local chapter president of the union, said.
MUNCHIES reached out to The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, but has yet to hear back. When asked for comment on the issue, a spokesperson from Just Born wrote the following: "Just Born remains fully committed to working with BCTGM Union Local #6 to reach an agreement that allows us to stay competitive and is fair and equitable for all parties." They also informed MUNCHIES that "more than 30 production associates have crossed the picket line since yesterday to come back to work."
Regarding any possible Easter shortages, the Just Born spokesperson said this: "The strike should not affect production of Just Born products. We have hired and continue to hire replacement workers as needed to meet our customer demands. These new workers are paid at the same rate and in the same manner as new production hires were paid before the strike."
This Easter, we may all be reciting the workers' call-to-arms: "No pension, no Peeps." That is, if you ever really even cared remotely about Peeps in the first place.