1,400 workers from Kellogg’s cereal plants in the US struck for eleven weeks for better wages and to end two-tier contracts. The strike attracted widespread support, including the successful shutdown of a website Kellogg’s tried to use to recruit replacement workers after strikers overwhelmingly rejected management’s first offer. Workers have now voted to accept a revised offer. Joe Allen reflects on widespread dissatisfaction with the settlement of a dispute which contributed to rebuilding militant trade unionism in the US.
The article was originally published by Tempest, and is republished here with their permission.
The eleven-week strike against Kellogg’s ended on 21 December when workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) ratified the latest contract proposal (Agreement).
The biggest issue for most of the 1,400 strikers was ending the longstanding two-tier wage and employment structure, which condemned a large part of the workforce to lower wages and precarious employment. While the union’s press release pledged that the new contract contains no concessions and the end of a permanent two-tier system, a large number of Kellogg’s workers felt betrayed.
The Agreement, a copy of which was obtained by Tempest, does reclassify the existing lower tier of workers into a new category called ‘Transitional Employees’. And it does provide a process by which these Transitional Employees can become ‘Regular Employees’, the current higher tier.
However, the number to be converted each year is limited to only three percent of the total plant headcount (i.e. three percent of all bargaining unit members in the plant, not including seasonal, student, or provisional employees). Of potentially greater concern, the Agreement provides that ‘[t]here will be no limit on the number of Transitional Employees a plant may hire.’ Under this scenario, it is hard to imagine that the two-tier wage system will not continue to be a permanent feature of work at Kellogg’s.
Days before the vote on the Agreement, a leaked email from Kellogg’s Battle Creek plant manager Gregory Jackson boasted that,
In short, [the] overall bucket of money (cost) stays the same. Just shifts money from one bucket to another. No gain overall for them with 3 more weeks of strike and no income. No ratification bonus… I know everyone is tired and tense in the plant, please try to focus on what we need to do. Please try to keep negotiations talk to a minimum in the plant around the workers.
As of the date of publishing this article, the BCTGM has not released a vote count on the Agreement.
One of the highest profile strikes of the year, Kellogg’s is one of the global giants of breakfast cereals and snack foods that made a fortune during the first year of the pandemic. Declared essential workers, Kellogg’s production workers across the United States, like many food processing, manufacturing, and healthcare workers, found that the praise they received meant very little in improving working conditions and employment status during contract negotiations.
When striking workers voted down a second tentative agreement in early December, a furious Kellogg’s management threatened to ‘permanently replace’ them, which is perfectly legal under existing U.S. labour law. This threat prompted President Joe Biden to condemn Kellogg’s:
Permanently replacing striking workers is an existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods. I have long opposed permanent striker replacements and I strongly support legislation that would ban that practice.
This was Biden’s second intervention in a high profile labour dispute. In late February, Biden condemned anti-union tactics by Amazon during the voting period for union representation at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. ‘Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union’, declared Biden.
Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont and democratic socialist, travelled to Battle Creek, Michigan, the historic birthplace and corporate headquarters of Kellogg’s, to rally support for the strikers just as excerpts of the tentative agreement were released. Sanders presented a letter to the strikers from President Biden. The letter to the strikers, while offering support to the right of workers to join a union, was silent on the key question of the use of scab labour.
That rally turned ‘into a righteous local union rebellion that upstaged Sanders’. Battle Creek BCTGM Local 3-G executive board member Donivan Williams told the crowd:
I won’t be silent when our union brothers and sisters, a third of us, make a third less in sharing the benefits than what we ourselves take. We can’t be silent. Not at a time like this. It takes integrity, for people with very little on the line to risk it all by leading their families out on the street. This two-tier wage system fight, it’s about integrity. It’s going to take a strong backbone to fight against the Kellogg[’s] Corporation. I’ve been proud every day, standing beside my brothers and sisters on these picket lines.
Local 3-G president Trevor Bidelman condemned the then-tentative agreement as a ‘Trojan horse’. He explained that:
What the company’s going to do is they’re going to fill these facilities with these workers that we were essentially fighting to get rid of the classification altogether. So, when you look at what we’re doing here, it’s grabbed the national media’s attention, the attention of every single middle-class working American.
Everyone is sick and tired of working every single waking moment of their life. We literally had to do this just to have somewhat of what’s referred to as a comfortable living. Yes, yes, I’m tired, we’re all tired. You know who’s not tired? That building over there [Kellogg’s HQ]. They’re not tired. They’re not tired of us working seven days a week, 12, 16-hour days. You know they have half-day Fridays over there [in Kellogg’s HQ].
Bidelman, a fourth-generation Kellogg’s worker and the working president of Local 3-G in the Battle Creek plant, expressed anger and frustration at the lavish, comfortable lifestyle of the corporate elite while production workers are working past human endurance. The ever-present danger of the Covid-19 virus and its variants circulate all around them. Strikers also sacrificed as much as $20,000 during the course of the eleven-week strike to end the two-tier system only to discover it still embedded in the contract.
‘To have the fight stop when we’re winning is very disheartening,’ Todd Manusos, a Kellogg’s worker, told the local media. ‘You want to find someone happy about this contract, you have to travel because nobody here feels like this is a win.’ Teddy Haywood, another union worker, wanted the two-tier system completely eliminated. ‘I feel the person next to me should make what I make. It’s a way to divide and conquer,’ he said. ‘I want to see something where you can see the light when you first get here. Six to nine years or something like that, to me there is no light.’
With no vote count available, it seems likely that the Battle Creek local union voted it down while it passed in other locals. This is reminiscent of the Nabisco strike this past summer, when the Portland, Oregon local of BCTGM voted down the final offer while it passed in other striking locals, leading to animosity between them. It appears that the three months on strike took their toll on most strikers.
Anthony Shelton, the BCTGM’s International President, praised the strikers, ‘Our striking members at Kellogg’s ready-to-eat cereal production facilities courageously stood their ground and sacrificed so much in order to achieve a fair contract. This agreement makes gains and does not include any concessions.’ Yet, the leaked company email and virtually identical press releases from the company and the union suggest they collaborated to sell a contract little different from the one voted down in early December.
Shelton was elected International President following the death of David Durkee in March 2020. Durkee was eulogized as a ‘radical activist’ who liked to quote Mother Jones but, as is common amongst long-serving union staffers, both Durkee and Shelton are decades removed from the shop floor. And the salaries attached to the officer positions in the international unions give these officers a materially different relationship to the strikes such as at Kellogg’s. For too many long-standing bureaucrats strikes are to be managed not won through aggressive tactics.
Kellogg’s and the strike wave
The Kellogg’s strike was another example of workers willing to strike in the industrial core of the economy where long-declining industrial unions haven’t fought in decades. Prior to this year, the last time Nabisco was on strike was 1969 and for John Deere it was 1986. A generation or more of union militants have come and gone through the plants, yet we also have sizable ‘no’ votes on contracts that have passed, revealing that many union members wanted a different outcome.
Unfortunately, the recent Kellogg’s settlement has been part of a frustrating pattern this year. Many, including this author, have written about the United States being in the midst of a strike wave and a revival of the beleaguered labour movement. While some gains were made (for example, the UAW-Deere workers defended pension rights for new hires, something which had been lost by UAW at Ford, GM, and Chrysler after the 2008 financial crisis), at the same time, contract settlements are too often mediocre at best or at worst fail to address the key issues: exhausting work schedules and two-tier wage structures. Rank and file workers are driving the strike wave while too many union leaders are muffling or undermining the potential to wipe away decades of concessions.
The undemocratic structures of many unions and the poverty of the strategy and tactics of the US labour movement are well on display this past year. This is why a frontal assault by the workers’ movement on the use of scabs – a zero-tolerance approach – is so critical. Strikes are far too passive. Such passivity leads to the idea that it’s just a question of toughing out the worst of the strike to win. ‘One day longer, one stronger’ is a recipe for disaster.
Ron Lare contributed reporting to this article.
rs21 footnote: the efforts by Kellogg’s to import cereal from its UK plants to break the strike shows the importance of international solidarity.