print-icon

Labor Strikes Target Big Food As Workers Seize On Industry Turmoil

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Thursday, Oct 07, 2021 - 06:15 PM

By Chris Casey of Food Dive,

At food plants around the country this year, workers have been making themselves heard about the state of wages, working hours and conditions.

Just this week, roughly 1,400 Kellogg workers at ready-to-eat cereal plants in four states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Tennessee — went on strike after their contract expired. In a statement, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) said its goal is to "obtain a fair contract that provides a living wage and good benefits."

Anthony Shelton, BCTGM's president, said Kellogg workers "have been working long, hard hours, day in and day out, to produce Kellogg ready-to-eat cereals for American families" but that the company has responded by cutting benefits and threatening to send jobs to Mexico if employees don't accept the company's proposals.

"Kellogg is making these demands as they rake in record profits, without regard for the well-being of the hardworking men and women who make the products that have created the company’s massive profits," Shelton said in a statement. 

Just a couple weeks earlier, more than a thousand workers returned to their jobs at Mondelēz Nabisco factories in five states after a walkout that lasted nearly six weeks. It also was led by BCTGM. The workers were protesting what they considered unfair changes in overtime rules and shift lengths.

This came a few months after hundreds of Frito-Lay employees in Topeka, Kansas, were on strike in July for 19 days, demanding better hours and higher pay. That same month, dozens of Teamster truck drivers gathered to strike against Coca-Cola in West Virginia, rejecting a contract that would reportedly have made them pay more for health insurance and give them less commission.

Some of these strikes, including those at Mondelēz and Frito-Lay plants, have reached their conclusion after the manufacturers came to terms with workers and their unions. And some, like the strike affecting Kellogg plants, are only ratcheting up. The turmoil reflects a unique set of conditions — a labor shortage, growing demand and supply chain disruptions in the midst of a pandemic — that has given labor unions extra leverage, and food manufacturers a greater incentive to meet their demands. 

CPGs are currently hobbled by a massive labor shortage. There are now 4.9 million more people who are either not working or not looking for work compared to pre-pandemic times, The Washington Post recently reported. At the same time, demand for food has skyrocketed, rising 8.7% in the second quarter of this year alone, as people spend more time at home, the Consumer Brands Association reported. This has left CPG manufacturers scrambling to increase production with fewer workers and a shaky, fragile supply chain — all while dealing with continued uncertainty over the outlook for COVID-19.

The leverage that workers and labor advocates currently enjoy is a recent change in fortunes. The power of unions, specifically in the food manufacturing sector, had deteriorated during the past four decades as companies avoided meeting worker demands by moving many jobs overseas, according to Bryant Simon, labor scholar and history professor at Temple University.

But the COVID crisis, Simon believes, has provided a unique opportunity for American factory workers to reassess their pivotal role in the food industry.

"Workers are like, ‘Look, I’m not going to work on these terms anymore, and you’ve given me a chance to explore some other options,' " Simon said.

Uncertain outcomes

The Mondelēz strike demonstrates how all of these factors can come into play.

The dispute began in May when workers were offered a new contract that would increase hourly shifts from eight hours to 12, without additional overtime pay for the first five days of the week. A Mondelēz spokesperson told CBS News at the time that the changes were intended to “promote the right behaviors” among workers. 

Meanwhile, some Mondelēz employees at its Chicago factory told The New York Times they had worked 16-hour shifts during the pandemic to keep up with the increased demand for the snack giant’s most popular products, such as Oreos.

Workers were also worried that their jobs would be sent to Mexico, similiar to what happened in 2016, when Mondelēz cut nearly 1,000 jobs at plants in Chicago and Philadelphia

Mondelēz International spokesperson Laurie Guzzinati told Food Dive in August that the contract negotiations were “not about'' moving jobs to Mexico and that the company was committed to keeping its U.S workforce. 

Workers in Portland, Ore., launched the first walkout on Aug. 10, with signs reading “No contract, no snacks,” “Weekends are family time” and “Spit out that Oreo” populating the picket line. As the strikes spread to other states — Illinois, Virginia, Colorado and Georgia — they quickly made national headlines. Actor Danny DeVito and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came out in support of the workers. 

The snacks giant told Food Dive that it began negotiating with the union “as soon as the action took place in Portland.” In its last quarterly earnings call on Sept. 9, Mondelēz’s CEO Dirk Van De Put said that after the company requested contract changes to increase capacity at its plants as well as product inventory, it “foresaw that it would not be an easy conversation." He said Mondelēz was making a new offer to the union, which included increased wages, a higher 401(k) match and more flexible hours. The company was not willing to reinstate its pension plan

The new terms sealed the deal. In a statement after its members voted to approve the new four-year contract, BCTGM said that they "made enormous sacrifices" to reach a deal "that preserves our Union’s high standards for wages, hours and benefits for current and future Nabisco workers." BCTGM did not respond to multiple requests for comment by Food Dive.

The Kellogg strikes, meanwhile, may not be coming to a quick, amicable conclusion any time soon.

BCTGM called for a strike a month after Kellogg announced plans to invest $45 million in restructuring its ready-to-eat cereal supply chain, which includes cutting more than 200 jobs at its Battle Creek factory. The company said it is shifting production to more efficient production lines, even as it struggled with shortages of factory line workers and truck drivers at many of its plants.

BCTGM representatives said last week that Kellogg did not provide workers with a “comprehensive offer” during contract negotiations like it had stated.

In a statement to Food Dive, Kellogg spokesperson Kris Bahner said the company is "disappointed by the union’s decision to strike," and that its proposed new contract provides wage and benefits increases "while helping us meet the challenges of the changing cereal business." Bahner said the company hopes to reach an agreement with the union soon. 

Raising the stakes of negotiations even further: Kellogg filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against BCTGM in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska, saying that it "seeks to recover damages for ongoing breaches of a labor agreement." The cereal giant said the union's "improper actions" have the intention of inflicting “significant economic harm” to the company before a contract agreement is able to be met.

What’s next for labor

Despite this test of wills between labor and food manufacturers, the “ultimate leverage” for workers in 2021 is their ability to create negative publicity for their parent company through strikes to make them appear “union-busting” in hopes of spurring a consumer boycott of their products, said Erik Loomis, a labor expert and University of Rhode Island professor.

Loomis said this can bring about more immediate benefits to unions compared to legal frameworks, which are often not on the side of workers and could take months or years to result in better contracts.

The use of social media to spread organization efforts and make the public aware of working conditions makes today’s strikes different to those of the past, according to Simon with Temple University. In the case of Mondelēz, calls for a boycott of Nabisco snacks like Oreos and Wheat Thins gained traction on social media during the strikes, with users uploading photos of shelves stocked with unsold Oreos and Chips Ahoy! cookies at grocery stores.

However, relying on public support to dictate change has its drawbacks. Simon said wage increases for food manufacturing workers is a larger “ideological hurdle” because many consumers ultimately may not be willing to pay more for food products to support higher wages. This is despite the fact that the annual mean salary of a food factory employee is under $33,000, significantly lower than the roughly $56,000 national average for all jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Food prices have also been rising during the pandemic as manufacturers pass along higher costs for ingredients, manufacturing, packaging and transportation. 

Loomis expects strikes to continue due to the supply chain crisis, and as workers see more examples of successful organizing taking place.

Meanwhile, under the Biden administration, the political climate is also friendlier to unions. The PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize), which passed Congress in March with five Republicans joining, is supported by The White House. One of its biggest elements — monetary punishments for companies that infringe on workers’ union-based rights — was added as part of the budget reconciliation bill package currently being debated in the Senate.

“You’re going to see more strikes within the legal sense,” Loomis said. “Even outside of that, workers will take matters into their own hands when they feel it is necessary to do so."

0