Kellogg’s workers stand strong as cereal strike stretches on
Former Kellogg's employee Austin Brown supports workers on strike during a rally outside Kellogg's World Headquarters on Oct. 27, 2021, in Battle Creek, Mich. | Alyssa Keown / Battle Creek Enquirer via AP

BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—Last month, 1,400 Kellogg’s cereal workers went on strike. Their job action came after bargaining over pay, lengthy work days, and benefits hit a wall. Negotiations had been going on for over a year at that point. The strike has included workers from plants in Michigan, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.

President of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), Anthony Shelton, stated that Kellogg workers have also been threatened with proposals that would remove protections they’ve “had for decades,” as well as being threatened with jobs being outsourced to Mexico if they did not accept the company’s demands.

Kellogg spokesperson Kris Bahner noted in a statement the company’s “disappointment” in the decision to strike, claiming that the workers’ pay and benefits are among the industry’s best.

Now in its sixth week, Kellogg Co. has already started hiring replacement workers and even filed a lawsuit against striking workers for “intimidating new hires” and “interfering with its business.”

People’s World visited the picket lines in Battle Creek, Mich. Alongside activists from the St. Joseph Valley Project: Jobs with Justice of South Bend, Ind., there were labor organizers from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA)—who are also currently organizing around the water crisis happening in Benton Harbor—as well as representatives of BCTGM Local 3G.

Several striking workers told People’s World that the first of their complaints was with the two-tier wage system, a set-up meant to separate so-called casual workers from union workers.

In 2015, Kellogg Co. introduced the concept of “transitional employees”—who receive lower pay and fewer benefits—which contrasted with what the company called “legacy employees”—the latter being regular, full-time employees with full health insurance and pensions. Transitional employees had inferior health coverage, no pensions, and earned $10 to $11 per hour less. Although compensated significantly less, these transitional workers were supposed to have a seven-year pathway to full employment and to receive $0.50 per hour raises at the end of each year.

Originally, transitional employees were not to exceed 30% of the headcount of legacy employees; however, as legacy employees have retired, all new employees have been categorized by the company as transitional. Now, during bargaining, Kellogg Co. claims the 30% limit was never part of the contract, leaving striking workers to describe the treatment of transitional employees as “ruthless.”

One worker who talked with People’s World but did not want to be named, was hired over seven years ago but was laid off from her job at the Battle Creek plant and had to move to Memphis, Tenn., and take a job at the plant there instead. In doing so, she lost her seniority and had to start over again as a transitional. About a year ago, she was able to rejoin the Battle Creek crew but is now threatened with the company’s plan to reduce the workforce by more than 170 workers—another lay-off.

The Battle Creek plant was originally built to employ nearly 3,000 workers but now has been cut back to just 326 employees. Both legacy and transitional workers are at risk of losing their jobs due to newly-planned cutbacks.

The most concerning complaint has to do with the amount of time each worker has been putting in at the job. Both legacy and transitional workers work eight-hour shifts, seven days a week, with a mandatory eight hours’ overtime each week. Although this overtime can be spread throughout the week or taken as a whole extra shift on a single day, the “flexibility” isn’t enough to let workers live their lives.

One worker said his days consisted of a half-hour commute each way, working his standard shift, coming home to go straight to bed, and showing up for work the next day with barely six hours of sleep.

The company claims it pays workers well, but the lack of time employees have to enjoy life outside the plant makes the money almost meaningless. One worker told us he had earned $93,000 last year (the official line from Kellogg Co. is that employees make over $100,000 per year), but he had missed every family event and barely saw his family at all. He said even if the strike ends, he may not come back. One sign at the entry of the plant said these work schedules were ruining marriages, lives, and workers’ sanity.

Workers are not allotted any paid sick days, and workers must “take a point” for the day if they have to see the doctor—referring to the disciplinary point system that tracks workers’ attendance. After so many points, about five to six a year, the worker gets a write-up from management, or worse. The employees at Kellogg do have “guaranteed” holidays but are not immune from work on these days: They can be called in without notice. Vacation days, although scheduled, are also not guaranteed. Weekends were supposed to be rotated after the pandemic began, but these have all but fully disappeared as well.

If these are, in fact, some of the industry’s “best” benefits, as Kellogg claims, then the whole industry itself is what’s on trial during this strike.

The politics of the situation have not gone unnoticed either. A recent article in Detroit’s Metro Times points out that striking workers are keenly aware of the lack of support they get from Republican politicians, even though many of these same workers give the GOP their votes at election time. Battle Creek and the surrounding areas of Calhoun County are generally more Republican than Democratic. Despite the city supporting Biden in the 2020 election, 55% of the voting public in Calhoun County voted for Trump. As one warehouse crew leader, Heather Greene, pointed out, “I can tell you that our plant in Battle Creek is probably 70% Republican.”

Despite the awareness of this political divide, Greene also argued, “This isn’t a left or right issue…. There’s no place for politics when it comes to a living wage…. Even though we aren’t hearing from the elected Republicans, this isn’t about party, and I personally hope that they will see that and…realize that it is OK to support striking workers.”

Greene’s desire for support from the GOP suggests she doesn’t truly believe this to not be a political issue; in fact, it seems to point to an ever-growing disappointment in how both parties have handled workers’ rights. Despite the majority of support from local Democratic lawmakers, it has already been pointed out that many Democrats at the national level—Biden included—have been hesitant to back striking workers.

As some of the major strikes that have rocked the country lately come to a close—some with positive endings—in this one, Kellogg is trying to shift the narrative to one highlighting its supposed benevolence in attempting to avoid a food shortage. But any cereal “shortage” is due not to workers’ greed, but Kellogg’s exploitation.


CONTRIBUTOR

Lee Gloster
Lee Gloster

Lee Gloster is a paraprofessional in special education and teacher in the Homebound Program at South Bend Community School Corporation.

Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based out of Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.

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