Kellogg's Strikers: We Want a Clear Path Out of Two-Tier, Set in Stone
In contract talks with its 1,400 workers this summer, Kellogg's proposed to remove the union logo from its cereal boxes.
It's an indication of the company's overall plan, said strikers on the Battle Creek, Michigan picket line this weekend. “Their long-term goal is to bust the union,” said Michelle Fulcher, a warehouse crew leader at the company's flagship plant.
Kellogg’s workers in four states have been on strike since October 5. Their top issue is the company’s efforts to expand its two-tier system.
“Going into negotiations we had four things we were going to be hard-nosed on,” Fulcher said: “Keep our pension, keep our retiree health care, keep our health benefits, and get rid of Tier 2.” The first three goals—simply to maintain what they have—apply to about 70 percent of the 395 strikers in Battle Creek. They're fighting for the other 30 percent, labeled “transitionals,” who can make $13 an hour less than the majority, with fewer benefits.
Fulcher says the transitionals were lied to about their ability to move into the top tier. Under the previous contract they were supposed to replace retiring workers one to one, but that has not happened. “It's all about the 30 percent,” said one picketer. “We just want a clear path for them, set in stone.”
The Battle Creek workers make Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran, Frosted Mini-Wheats and, if there's no strike on, such seasonal goodies as Elf on the Shelf cereal. Other struck plants are in Omaha, Memphis, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Strikers ask shoppers to check boxes for dates—buy nothing produced after October 4—and country of origin. Kellogg's also has plants in Mexico, where it has moved thousands of jobs in recent years. Strikers say that is the main source of any cereal now on U.S. shelves. CEO Steve Cahillane told Bloomberg in November, “We have plants in Mexico, Canada, the U.K.—Manchester is a very big cereal plant—and even as far away as Australia. So we’ll leverage the totality of our global network.”
On December 7 workers “overwhelmingly” voted down Kellogg's latest offer, according to the Bakery Workers union (BCTGM). Trevor Bidelman, president of Local 3G in Battle Creek, said that offer had shown some movement on the company's part, away from insisting on an officially permanent second tier.
The agreement that workers rejected would have removed the 30 percent cap on the number of lower-tier workers. “In exchange,” the New York Times reported, “the company agreed to move all workers with four or more years experience into the veteran tier, as well as an amount equivalent to 3 percent of workers at its plants in each of the five years of the contract."
“But it did not fix the long-term problem we set out to fix,” Bidelman said. “What they still have is a Trojan horse that might be a little better for a couple of years, but over the long term it doesn't fix it at all. Once people are retirement-eligible, more people would retire than would transition, by a considerable amount. We can see the demographics. Right now it’s not that many, just 10 or 11 each year, but when it’s 30, 40, 50 and they remove the cap on how many transitionals they could have, they could flood the plant with transitionals. We don't need to wait for hindsight to see we're making a mistake.”
Kellogg's workers watched the strike of their fellow BCTGM members at Nabisco this fall, and a delegation from Battle Creek took a road trip to visit John Deere strikers. They're aware what their strike against tiers means. They were heartened by President Biden's December 10 statement criticizing Kellogg's for announcing it will hire permanent replacements.
Already white-collar and management employees are working 12-hour shifts trying to keep production going. Out-of-town scabs are entering with only token resistance.
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With its headquarters in Battle Creek, Kellogg's was long a city mainstay, founded there in 1906 and at one time employing thousands of workers. “You'd think Kellogg's would have a different reputation in Battle Creek,” Bidelman said. “Everywhere you look there's an auditorium [with the Kellogg's name].
“The reality is in the last 25 years, the company has been pretty ruthless to its employees not just at the plants but downtown. You can't throw a rock without hitting somebody that's been negatively affected by Kellogg's greed.”
More than two months into the strike, workers have had an easy time finding temporary jobs. They have been overwhelmed with food donations from local unions and businesses, even free haircuts at the union hall. They watched a boxcar bringing raw materials to the plant derail, and union rail workers decline to fix it. Managers had to be dispatched to get it back on track.
But Kellogg's cut off their health insurance when the strike jumped off, meaning workers have big COBRA payments to keep it up. The BCTGM international is providing only $105 per week in strike pay, but supporters have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars online to strike funds set up by the locals.
“We are fighting the right fight,” Bidelman said. “I don't know when else we will have the opportunity. Our time is now to fix this. If we don't that's shame on us.”
Asked if Kellogg's is still considered a plum job, union rep and trustee Dave Hagerty said, “We're trying to keep it that way. If they change this job the way they want to, this job will be like any other factory job around here.”
Checks can be sent to Local 3G via BCTGM Local 3G CES Fund, 1006 N. Raymond Road, Battle Creek, MI 49014. Or contribute via GoFundMe at: Support Kellogg's Workers on Strike Local 3G. Find the GoFundMe for the Lancaster, Pennsylvania local here and for the Omaha local here. Supporters have been extraordinarily generous this holiday season, enabling strikers to hold out with hope.
Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.