Anger simmers among employees who are upset at what they describe as a hard-line stance the company has taken on health insurance.
Local union head Ed Speckman said Leprino has told workers there will be no contract with the present health care plan, and it has instead offered workers a plan with higher co-payments and slightly less coverage.
Speckman and workers complain that a lesser health plan is a big blow to Leprino workers, because many have been there 20 years or more, are in their 40s and 50s, and use their health insurance regularly.
“We’re all getting old,” said Manteca resident Eric Fincher, 53, who’s been at Leprino for 24 years. “We’re taking meds. Our teeth are falling out. It’s not like we’re asking for an arm and a leg, because we’re not.”
Speckman says what particularly rankles workers is that in past contracts, they’ve given up higher pay in exchange for better insurance.
The old contract expired Dec. 31, and after months of negotiations, workers rejected Leprino’s offer by a 75 percent margin in a Jan. 2 vote.
Leprino spokesman Joel Krein sent out a press release saying the company offered its workers a “market-based” health plan that cuts workers’ monthly contributions and, “despite increased deductibles,” puts more money in workers’ pockets.
But Fincher and another on the picket line said it equates to pennies an hour more, and for workers with health problems that require prescription drugs, it will mean a lot less income over the course of a year.
The Denver-based Leprino is a huge cheesemaker with nine plants around the country, three of which are in California. Leprino has owned the Tracy plant, which employs 325 people, since 1977. It produces about 300,000 pounds of cheese a day, and it has patents on the way it makes cheese so that milk that arrives in the morning is turned into mozzarella that can end up on a pizza that same night.
Its owner, Jim Leprino, was listed by Forbes as the 141st-richest person in the U.S. in 2009, with a net worth of $2.4 billion.
Krein declined to discuss the details of the labor talks, but Speckman said he’s been told in negotiations that the company wants to bring its insurance costs in line with most of its other plants, six of which are nonunion and have half the insurance costs of its unionized plants.
Speckman suspects the company wants to lower the Tracy plant’s insurance costs to discourage workers from joining a union at its other plants, since insurance coverage under the proffered level would be about the same at union and nonunion factories. Krein said unions already existed when Leprino bought the plants where workers are unionized.
Workers mentioned the possibility of a strike this week, and though both sides hope to avoid that, positions seem hardened.
“I’m ready to drop my hat and lose everything,” Fincher said.
Krein was diplomatic when he said, “At this point, we hope we’re still in constructive negotiations. I’m confident we’re going to come to an agreement.”
Leprino’s press release said it wants to get a new labor agreement, “but is committed to operating the plant and meeting the needs of thousands of customers around the world who depend upon us.”