There’s a bittersweet battle taking place in Stuarts Draft, Virginia.

Workers at the Hershey Company’s second-largest factory are seeking to unionize. In response, the candy manufacturing giant is throwing the full force of the corporate union-busting playbook at them.

The Virginia plant employs about 1,300 people, none of whom are sharing in the record profits reaped during a pandemic when Americans ate their weight in candy.

Hershey now stands accused of mistreating the workers who made that possible. Employees are speaking out about grueling hours, company surveillance, and harsh retaliation. Some even refer to the factory as the “Hershey Prison.”

One woman named Janice Taylor told the labor outlet More Perfect Union that she had to work for 72 consecutive days. “I was exhausted both physically and mentally,” she said.

Other Stuarts Draft workers are leaving reviews of their workplace on Indeed.com, reporting that exhausted employees “walk around like zombies.” One says they had to miss their daughter’s graduation because they couldn’t get two hours off. “Most weeks you work seven days and it’s hard to get a day off,” another explains. “Really hard if you have a family.”

“You don’t get to have a life,” warns another. You just “work until you drop.”

Another common complaint is that Hershey has created a two-tier system at the factory, where newer workers are paid less and have significantly fewer benefits.

It’s no wonder the Hershey workers in Stuarts Draft voted to hold union elections to join the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM). Hershey has vocally opposed the effort, holding “captive audience” meetings telling workers to vote against the union and even saying in job listings that Stuarts Draft is a “Non-Union plant.”

The company’s opposition to the union drive is puzzling. Since 1938, workers at Hershey’s original Pennsylvania factory have been unionized under the same union, BCTGM Local 464. But Hershey opposes its Virginia workers having similar rights.

The company even created a website, WeAreHersheySD.com, that tells Stuarts Draft employees that the BCTGM — the same union their Pennsylvania colleagues are members of — is not their “friend.” The website also warns about the possibility of strikes costing employees wages.

The site fails to mention that striking BCTGM workers at Kellogg’s just won a new five-year contract ending the same two-tiered pay system the Stuarts Draft workers want to end.

This Hershey union effort is part of a growing trend among workers at big-name companies like Starbucks and Amazon. A successful unionization vote at one Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York, has now sparked similar efforts at more than 70 Starbucks stores in 20 states.

Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are redoing a union vote that Amazon had illegally interfered in. Even museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim are seeing union activity.

And in early February, the Biden administration issued a set of recommendations “to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining” — a far cry from the blatantly anti-union posture of Biden’s predecessor.

Hershey enjoys a reputation for being a just company. It runs a private school for low-income children in Pennsylvania. Its CEO Michele Buck has boasted about its commitment to sustainability, social responsibility, and human rights.

In an online talk last year, Buck even said that her company was focused on “the well-being of our employees,” including “their emotional well-being and their economic well-being.”

The company’s union-busting shows that talk is just sugarcoating. But if Hershey’s won’t guarantee dignity, safety, and fairness, maybe its workers will do it for them.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. This commentary was produced by the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and adapted by OtherWords.org.

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