Some of America’s favourite snacks, from Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes to Nabisco’s Oreo cookies, have been caught up in a drive by factory workers to secure better working conditions after being pushed to the brink during the pandemic.
For the past week, 1,400 workers at four Kellogg plants that make cereals such as Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops have been striking in an attempt to force the company to end forced overtime work and stop it from redrawing the workers’ benefits scheme after its previous contract expired on October 5.
One of the employees on strike, Kevin Bradshaw, has worked in the packaging department at a Kellogg cereal plant in Memphis, Tennessee, for 20 years. Because of the pandemic and subsequent labour shortage, he said he often worked up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
For the past week, Bradshaw has spent his days co-ordinating a round-the-clock picket line outside each of the plants’ gates.
“It becomes frustrating knowing that the time and dedication and loyalty that we put into this company, the things we miss that most people don’t miss, like birthdays, reunions, and graduations and funerals, and just family time,” said Bradshaw, who is also the vice-president of the local Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union chapter. “We spend most of our time here.”
Bradshaw and his colleagues are the most recent in a wave of BCTGM-led strikes at food plants across the country by workers who say that changes implemented during the Covid crisis have made their jobs untenable. They are demanding improvements such as shorter working hours and an end to forced overtime.
In a statement, Kellogg said that the union had misrepresented the negotiations and that it was continuing to operate its plants with “other resources”.
“We value all of our employees and recognise their efforts, especially during this global pandemic,” it said. Kellogg shares have fallen 2.6 per cent since the strike began on October 5.
In addition to the Kellogg workers, BCTGM also represents employees at a manufacturing plant for PepsiCo subsidiary Frito-Lay in Topeka, Kansas, who went on strike for 19 days in July over similar requirements for mandatory overtime.
BCTGM-represented workers also stopped work at plants owned by Oreo-maker Nabisco across five states for several weeks before agreeing on a new contract that guaranteed workers a day off each week.
As millions of American workers have delayed returning to work amid the Delta surge, those in the workforce have found new leverage to negotiate with their employers over pay and conditions.
The frustration is often highest among those who were considered essential workers early in the pandemic, such as food factory workers, but have since seen their working conditions stagnate or deteriorate as businesses reopened, said Bryant Simon, a labour historian at Temple university who studies food manufacturing.
“What’s going on with Kellogg and Nabisco is also part of what’s going on with the labour shortage,” Simon said. “This is about people reassessing their lives and their participation in the labour force.
“It’s not about people getting handouts, it is about people demanding better work with their feet by stepping away for a while,” he added. “There is a kind of turmoil right now about what a job should be, what it should entail, and what is the basic social construct.”
Food plant workers are not alone in their growing readiness to strike over quality-of-life issues, including working hours and job safety.
Nearly 60,000 workers on Hollywood production crews are on the verge of striking over gruelling hours and a lack of time off. Nurses are striking in Massachusetts and New York over low staffing levels that they say make it impossible to provide quality care to patients.
Since membership peaked in 1979, the American labour movement has been languishing because of waning public support. But the pandemic has reignited debates about aspects from workplace conditions to discrimination, and re-energised workers.
With attempts to organise new unions at high-profile employers like Amazon and Starbucks yet to prove successful, winning bitter contract disputes for existing members is the latest frontier.
Striking Kellogg workers say they need guarantees that they will continue to receive the cost-of-living wage rises that increase their pay with inflation, and high-quality health insurance benefits.
“At a time when the company is making money and the high-level executives are making money, they are asking us to take concessions and we don’t agree with that,” said Dan Osborn, who has worked as a mechanic at a Kellogg cereal plant in Omaha, Nebraska, for 18 years. He also serves as the president of the local BCTGM there.
Their chances of winning at least some of what they demand are good, according to Simon, who said that, historically, strikes were most successful in tight labour markets. Nabisco and Frito-Lay workers both won concessions through their strikes after hitting an impasse at the negotiating table.
But Kellogg workers say they have yet to receive a new offer.
“The company comes to the negotiating table after it has made record profits and the workers have worked record hours and says we need to take something away,” said David Woods, a BCTGM official who is the chief negotiator for workers at both Kellogg and Nabisco. “That’s the way it was with Kellogg and Nabisco, and with Frito-Lay in Topeka.”
“These are workers that have had a lot to complain about for a long time and just needed an opening,” Simon said.
Kellogg said in August that it had beaten analysts’ expectations for its earnings during the second quarter because of rising demand for packaged foods during the pandemic, and previously raised its profit projections for the year.