It only took two weeks of picket lines for 1,650 Teamster drivers, bottlers and warehouse workers to reach an agreement with the nation's largest Coca-Cola bottling operation that provided a healthy hourly wage increase and vastly improved health benefits.


So how did they do it? Solidarity and a heavy reliance on labor were two factors, but timing may have been the trump card: the peak summer beverage season was just getting started.


"They were producing but they were going to run out of product (locally) and we were ready to extend the picket lines all across the country," said Jim Santangelo, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42.


The union launched the strike on May 23 after failing to come to an agreement on a new contract after its last three-year pact expired April 4.


In the end, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Southern California, which distributes Coke products from Monterey County to the Mexican border, agreed to a five-year deal that includes average wage increases of $2.40 per hour, along with improved health care benefits.


Even a spokesman for the bottler acknowledged that the package was attractive. "Why make a generous offer? What's the alternative, giving them nothing?" said Bob Phillips. "The people are the core of our business, no question."


With 22 production, warehousing and distribution, service and sales facilities, including three large plants that produce and bottle the soft drink, the company is the largest Coca-Cola bottler in North America. It also has licenses to bottle and distribute beverages for Cadbury-Schweppes plc (the world's No. 3 soft drink maker), Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Inc. and Evian brand water.


The labor actions targeted two of the company's three bottling plants in Los Angeles and Downey, as well as five other distribution and service facilities.


During the strike, the bottler kept its operations going with replacement workers, including independent owner-operator truck drivers and non-union supervisors. It also shifted production to one of its plants and brought in product from other Coca-Cola bottlers.


"Some supervisory employees retain class A trucking licenses," said Phillips. "We had enough people to put together a contingency force. It didn't come without some people having to work extra hours, sometimes 14-hour days. Without them, it wouldn't have happened."


The bottler was helped by the use of other large plants with extra capacity. "The rotary fillers of plants this size spin so fast you can't see the bottlers it's a blur," said Alan Dikty, an analyst at Applied Beverage Technologies Inc. "All they need to do is go on 24 hours a day and they can make up the slack if another one shuts down."


As shipments fell at its Los Angeles and Downey bottling plants, the company shifted production to a third bottling and production plant in San Diego, which falls under a different union local and was not involved in the strike. Beverage ready for shipment to retailers also were purchased from other bottlers in the Bay Area, Phoenix and Texas.


Still, the strategy could only last a short period because it involved higher shipping and labor costs. And purchasing finished product from other bottlers is more expensive.


Moreover, the union created problems for management at third-party distribution sites. Many of the 550 striking drivers followed their non-union replacements to their destinations and set up picket lines as soon as they arrived. At union-friendly businesses, such as Walnut-based food and beverage distributor Sysco Foods, a unit of Sysco Corp., replacement drivers were turned away.


Coca-Cola Bottling maintains that it largely had the support of its customers who did not want to run short of waters, energy drinks and sodas. And the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, whose members maintain and repair machinery on the production line, continued to work throughout the strike.


But the United Food and Commercial Workers employed by Safeway Inc.'s Vons stores, as well as other supermarket chains, refused to unload Coca-Cola products, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to assist the drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.


"Obviously we honor picket lines," said Steve Stallone, spokesman for the ILWU.


The pact was reached just as Teamsters were about to launch picket lines at Coca-Cola bottling plants nationwide to prevent outside shipments of soft drinks to Southern California.


It raises wages to an average of $18.37 to $19.17 and will reduce out-of-pocket costs for doctor visits to $15, from $35, allow free hospitalization, and halve costs of emergency room visits. Dental and prescription drug costs also dropped.


Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, saidthe decision to settle quickly made sense. "Labor costs in that industry may not be that significant percentage of the total," he said.

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