Roughly fourteen hundred workers who make the Kellogg Company’s cereals — including Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran, Froot Loops, Corn Flakes, and Frosted Flakes — walked off the job on Tuesday, October 5, as their five-year contract expired. The striking shops are in Battle Creek, Michigan (the company’s hometown and site of its headquarters), Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Memphis, Tennessee, and Omaha, Nebraska. While only including a portion of Kellogg’s 31,000-person global workforce, the strike encompasses the entirety of Kellogg’s cereal plants.
Workers say the strike is necessitated by the company’s push to expand a two-tier system, previously agreed to in their contract, that created a “transitional” class of employees with lower pay and benefits. Currently, that class can constitute no more than 30 percent of the workforce. Workers say Kellogg is seeking to lift that cap, widening the gap between existing employees and new hires and setting the stage for a future with work predominantly on the lower tier.
“They want to take away new employees’ path to increases in wages and benefits so there’s no way to top out anymore,” says Kevin Bradshaw, a case-sealer operator at Kellogg’s Memphis plant, where he has worked for twenty years:
The difference between the lower tier and the higher tier is $13 an hour. Additionally, anyone who is hired after this contract would no longer have the same benefits. They would have to start paying for insurance at a premium rate, and once they retire, they would have no pension and no insurance.
Bradshaw is vice president of Local 252G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ Union (BCTGM), which represents workers at all the striking plants. In explaining workers’ objection to Kellogg’s proposal, Bradshaw also emphasizes the deleterious effects of a two-tier system for any union.
“Why would any worker in the future want to be a part of a union that sold them out and allows them to work the rest of their lives with no insurance and no benefits once they retire?” he asks. There are few more effective tools for dismantling and busting an existing union than using tiers to pit workers against each other, breeding resentment and mistrust.
BCTGM has recently waged a series of strikes in the food-manufacturing industry as contracts expire: first at a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas, then at Nabisco facilities across the country. Of this latest strike, BCTGM president Anthony Shelton said, “Kellogg’s response to these loyal, hardworking employees has been to demand these workers give up quality health care, retirement benefits, and holiday and vacation pay.”
Lining up contracts can be a strategic move by unions seeking to maximize worker power and leverage. Given that these strikes occurred at Frito-Lay, Nabisco, and Kelllogg, all well-known brands, one could imagine a push to take on the employers simultaneously. While that did not take place in this round of bargaining, workers are not willing to back down. As in so many other recent labor fights, they say the demanding experience of working through the pandemic has fueled their willingness to strike.
“At our plant, it’s been seven days a week, twelve-to-sixteen hours a day, with mandatory overtime,” says Bradshaw. Trevor Bidelman, a Kellogg’s worker in Battle Creek, Michigan, told Vice that at his plant, some workers have worked 120 days straight without a day off. The company announced in September that the Battle Creek plant would lose 212 jobs; Kellogg has been building up a workforce in Mexico, taking advantage of the country’s cheaper labor costs, and the threat of further job losses underlies the current contract negotiations.
Hours and control over scheduling have proven a central labor issue in recent months as employers work existing employees harder than ever. The issue was at the center of the Frito-Lay and Nabisco strikes, and helped provoke an ongoing strike at Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky.
Kellogg reported $380 million in net income for the most recent quarter of 2021, with sales up 2 percent over the previous year, which in turn saw industrywide cereal sales jump 9 percent. Steve Cahillane, Kellogg’s CEO, made roughly $11.6 million last year. The company has said that it is “disappointed” by workers’ decision to strike.
While there is no formal boycott at Kellogg, a BCTGM spokesperson told the Huffington Post that “supporters and consumers could certainly support the Kellogg workers and their fight for a fair contract by choosing not to buy Kellogg cereal while the strike is ongoing.” However, Bradshaw is unequivocal on the matter. “No one should buy anything made by Kellogg’s right now,” he says.
Picket lines are up and running at the striking facilities, and there are strike funds for those who’d like to support the workers at Kellogg. While Kellogg has said it is “implementing contingency plans” in an attempt to reduce the strike’s effectiveness in disrupting production, that hasn’t shaken workers’ resolve.
“We’re here to fight them one day longer than, one day stronger than we have to,” says Bradshaw. “We’re fighting corporate greed, and that’s a big ugly monster to fight.”