Published on Sunday, May 5, 2002 in the Observer of London
Bitter Taste of Conflict in the Sweetest Place on Earth
by Ed Vulliamy in Pennsylvania
The town they call 'the sweetest place on Earth' has turned sour. For a century, the factory community that makes the Hershey Bar, Mr Goodbar and Hershey's Chocolate Kisses - American icons long before Coca-Cola or McDonald's - has been celebrated as an emblem of enlightened, harmonious, paternalistic capitalism.
But now the model town that nestles in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania's Bible belt has been turned into an industrial battleground by a brazen new management facing bitter strike action.
Imagine Cadbury's Bournville magnified and elevated to cult status: hundreds of thousands of tourists come every year to pay homage to Chocolate World - Hershey's candy Disneyland. There is unlikely to be a single American who has not eaten a Hershey bar, stuffed into schoolchildren's pockets since 1903. But now placards and pickets line the factory gates along Old West Chocolate Avenue, hailed by hooting horns. Union organizer Bruce Hummel of Chocolate Local 464 said: 'The smell of solidarity is stronger than the smell of chocolate.'
The strike, by 2,800 employees, is over a wrangle involving back pay and heaping the burden of health care on workers. But the real source of strife is a chill wind of change at an unusual factory in an unusual town.
Like its English counterparts, the origins of Hershey chocolate lie in the philanthropic tradition of capitalistic paternalism, and specifically the stalwart Mennonite puritan who broke the ground to build his factory, Milton Hershey. Hershey, born in 1857, was father figure to the company and community he built in 1903 as a model town - which it remains - to manufacture America's first chocolate, hitherto a luxury sweetmeat, for the working class.
For decades, the management of his firm was nurtured and recruited from the family and from a private orphanage and school founded by Hershey himself in 1916 - as was the union which organized its workers.
'I was an orphan,' said Bruce Hummel, from his office on Cocoa Avenue, 'and grew up as one of Milton Hershey's orphans, just like many of the chief executives. He was a philanthropist who instilled a work ethic in everyone and owned everything in town and put everything he made back into the town - the drug store, the gas station. It was in his interest to have people well-paid and looked after.'
Last year, after five years of flat profit margins, the family tradition was dramatically ended with the appointment of Rick Lenny as chief executive.
Lenny came from different stock - a veteran of Nabisco Foods which had integrated the company into the Philip Morris tobacco giant, with a famed track record for cutting costs and jobs. Since his arrival at Hershey he has chopped the workforce by 800.
While Wall Street is delighted, Hershey is outraged, 'even if this is a conservative town,' said Hummel. 'It's four-to-one Republican and a lot of people won't picket for religious reasons - they make sandwiches instead. Personally I don't understand why because so far as I'm concerned Jesus was the first union activist.'
In the basement of strike headquarters, one table is given over to Bibles and 'religious support'; the neighboring towns are called Lebanon and Bethel; many of the local visitors taking factory tours are Amish.
More hardline pickets hand out free M&Ms to passers-by - 'manufactured by Mars'.
There are pictures of a flying rat called Bin Lenny crashing into two twin towers labeled Hershey Foods. 'He's a different kind of terrorist,' said a striker called Karl. 'He's not out to kill people, just wreck lives.'
The gas station refuses to sell Hershey bars and local doctors give their services free. Meanwhile, above the factory at the Hotel Hershey, long-faced executives from New York banks lock themselves in deluxe suites.
The average wage, says the union, is a handsome $17 an hour, with many earning less, and skilled trades more.
With the union holding shares in the company, the annual stockholders' meeting at Hershey Theater on Wednesday, third day of the strike, turned into a shouting match never before seen in Hershey's history, while hundreds demonstrated. Lenny announced a 10 per cent increase in first-quarter earnings - and profits of $87 million - and said to loud cheers: 'I care to do what the shareholders want me to do, which is increase shareholder value.' (The share price has been flat, however, since the strike began.)
National negotiator Robert Oakley, of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers' and Grain Millers' International Union, retorted down a microphone that Lenny's personal salary and stock option package was worth $22 million.
Company spokesman John Long declined to answer America's urgent question, about which bars and chocolates are running in short supply. 'We don't discuss that for competitive reasons,' he says.
But in a place like Hershey, secrecy is not easy. 'Our intelligence,' said Hummel, 'is that they've got a week and a half left on the stockpiles. After that those candy stores are going to start running low.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002