Reporting from the Battle Creek picketline by Kris Hamel.
Nine weeks after 1,400 Kellogg’s workers went out on strike for a fair contract, the workers voted December 7 to reject the latest tentative agreement. Striking at plants across Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, the workers are fighting back against the two-tier system that divides workers by undercutting the pay and benefits for new hires.
The combined crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crises have resulted in a major upsurge in militant worker struggles across the country. Workers were told in 2020 that they are essential and told to risk their lives to keep the economy running. Kellogg’s workers were pushed hard by the bosses during the pandemic to keep up with the demand, even harder than the equipment they operate.
“This is after just one year ago, we were hailed as heroes, as we worked through the pandemic, seven days a week, 16 hours a day. Now apparently, we are no longer heroes,” said Trevor Bidelman, president of BCTGM Local 3-G and a fourth-generation employee at the Kellogg’s plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. “We don’t have weekends, really. We just work seven days a week, sometimes 100 to 130 days in a row. For 28 days, the machines run, then rest three days for cleaning. They don’t even treat us as well as they do their machinery.”
To even take any time away from their grueling seven-day work week, workers were forced to use their limited vacation days, leaving many workers to routinely work 120 consecutive days. Sick or bereaving workers were told to show up to work, use a vacation day or lose their job. In the middle of a global catastrophe resulting in more than 800,000 deaths in the United States, these workers were told to sacrifice so much just for the sake of the company’s profits.
Meanwhile, like so many other major corporations in the United States, Kellogg’s made record profits this year. The company made $1.25 billion in profits in 2020, a 25% increase over the previous year. As profits grew, so did the pay of CEO Steve Cahillane. In 2020, he made $11.7 million, a 20% boost from 2019. Despite these record profits, the bosses came to the bargaining table with the union this year demanding the expansion of two-tier to continue to squeeze more from the workers and leave all future Kellogg’s workers immediately worse off.
Kellogg’s initially introduced a two-tier system of “transitional” workers in their union contract in 2015, denying those workers the same pay (making $13 less per hour), health insurance and pension that other workers received at Kellogg’s for the same work. The bosses said these workers would transition to the same tier as the other workers and only ever make up a limited portion of the workforce.
However, those promises proved to be completely empty as they now push to expand the tier of “transitional” workers to be a larger portion of the workforce and continue to undercut pay and benefits. These new hires are being denied the same standards as those doing the same work alongside them. A Kellogg’s “transitional” worker noted that “We feed all these, but I can’t feed mine.”
While some workers resisted introducing this system initially in 2015, they ultimately allowed it into the contract under threat of the company moving production overseas. These same threats are a major element to the company’s strategy today as well, aiming to pit the Kellogg’s workers not only against the next generation of workers in their communities, but also against workers overseas. These threats are meant to push the workers to accept concessions or lose it all.
The workers are ready to fight back against their employer’s demands for ever greater concessions and attempts to push the workers to sell out future generations. Beginning their strike on October 5, these workers joined tens of thousands of striking workers in the latest labor upsurge, popularly referred to as Striketober. Workers at Kellogg’s and across the country are now being inspired by these fights, such as the recent historic victory of John Deere workers. “It’s exciting to be a part of something bigger than yourself, knowing that we’re not alone,” said Dan Osborn who has worked at Kellogg’s for 18 years and is the president of the Omaha, Nebraska local.
Despite this being the first major fight for these workers in a while (the strike is the first at the Battle Creek plant since 1972 and the first at the Lancaster plant since 1985), these workers are fed up with being overworked for Kellogg’s corporate greed and united around their demands for better pay and benefits for all Kellogg’s workers. As one worker at the Battle Creek plant said, “We’re done just giving up concession by concession. We’re done being bullied by a company that makes millions and millions, and gives out billions of dollars in dividends.”
The workers know the two-tier system is meant to divide them. Even in the face of threats of hiring scabs and permanent replacements or shutting down and moving overseas, they are standing united against their employer. In fact, millions of workers from across the country are standing together with these workers by joining the fight. In the face of Kellogg’s moving to permanently replace striking workers, supporters of the strike are coordinating on Reddit and TikTok to flood Kellogg’s application systems with thousands of fake applications to shut down their attempt to hire scab labor.
Voting down this latest TA is not just a show of unbreakable solidarity of these workers, but a show of strength and resolve of workers united. One worker noted, “We’ve been asked about how long we’re willing to fight, and at the end of the day, it’s gonna be one day longer than they are.”
From the picket line in Battle Creek
A contingent from Party for Socialism and Liberation in Detroit traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, on December 11 to show solidarity with striking Kellogg’s workers who have been out on the picket lines in four cities since October 5. The group stopped at the Local 3-G union hall to deliver a holiday donation of Meijer (a union grocery store) gift cards and talk to strikers before heading across the street to one of five entrances where striking workers are picketing around the clock in four-hour shifts.
The strikers did not let the snow or winds of up to 50 miles per hour dampen their disdain for the greedy company that offers no job security as they move jobs to Mexico and continue the two-tier wage plan where newer hires “have lower wages, pay more for health insurance and have no pension plan at all” as one striker described. That’s why she and her coworkers rejected the company’s offer that “failed to address the future,” as worker after worker put it. The solidarity of older and younger workers was evident on the picket line and at the union hall.
At the plant entrance the strikers had constructed a wooden shanty for shelter from snow and falling temperatures and had secured a heavy-duty tent donated to them where picket signs and other supplies were stored. A burn barrel helped keep strikers warm.
One Local 3-G member, a woman with 34 years’ seniority at the plant, said the entire community backs the striking workers, which was evident from the many vehicles honking their support as they drove past. “Everyone in Battle Creek and the surrounding area has a family member who once worked for Kellogg’s,” she said. Battle Creek, where the company’s international headquarters is located, once had 5,000 union members employed by the company. Fewer than 400 union workers, now on strike, remain.
The highlight of our visit was when a semi-truck driver pulled over on the side of the road for several minutes before turning into the plant complex where he stopped voluntarily. He spoke Spanish and a supporter on the picket line spoke with him and learned the truck came from Mexico and the driver had no idea a strike was going on. He said he was not about to cross the picket line and asked if he could take a photo of us with picket signs to prove to his boss that it happened and why he wouldn’t go in. The trucker drove the semi in far enough so that he could turn around and then laid on his horn in solidarity as he got back on the road.
The BCTGM members on strike against Kellogg’s in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee deserve the support of working people everywhere. They are saying “enough is enough” when it comes to workers’ tiered wages and benefits, and concessions to a company that makes billions in profits from their labor.
Feature photo: Strikers at Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, have solidarity from a trucker who turned his semi truck around after seeing picketers at the entrance on December 11. Liberation photo by Matthew Charleboix