HERSHEY, Pa. — Hershey Foods Corp. and negotiators for 2,700 striking factory workers reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday that could end a 42-day strike, a company official said.
John Long, vice president of corporate communications, said they came to an agreement during a late-night meeting at the Hershey Hotel.
Negotiators sealed the agreement with a handshake and a promise to try to put the strike behind them, said Robert Oakley, lead union negotiator.
“It’s been a long journey and it hasn’t been an easy one,” he said.
Oakley refused to provide details about the settlement but said the union members could vote on the proposal this weekend.
Workers who picketed outside the company late Thursday night expressed wariness and wanted to see the details for themselves.
“It’s not that I don’t trust the union. It’s just that I want to see it for myself. I’ll believe it’s a good contract when I see it for myself,” machine operator Sharon Kirby said.
The members of Chocolate Workers Local 464 walked out of two Hershey plants April 26 after more than six months of negotiations had failed to dissolve an impasse over management’s insistence that employees contribute more toward their health care costs. The workers’ contract expired in November.
The sides were hung up on a company demand that employee contributions to health care rise from 6 percent in the first year of the proposed contract to 12 percent in the fourth year.
The company characterized the deal as similar to the one granted to the rest of the company’s approximately 11,000 employees.
As the strike continued, the divide had become increasingly bitter.
The company mounted a public-relations campaign accusing the union leadership of bargaining in bad faith.
The workers derided chief executive Richard H. Lenny as an outsider and the symbol of a company that rewarded executives with big bonuses, but scrimped on worker benefits.
Union members said that they would not object to a higher health care contribution if the company were struggling, but Hershey Foods has consistently recorded profits.
The company’s board of directors — most of whom are not from Hershey — hired Lenny from Nabisco in March 2001 to help expand the 8 percent margins on company sales of $4.6 billion for 2001.
The company’s cost-cutting has included $310 million to close three manufacturing facilities and eliminate 600 jobs, among other things, while it sells some of its peripheral brands like Luden’s cough drops.