Kellogg’s workers have emerged victorious after 1,400 workers stayed out on strike for 11 weeks, securing a contract from their employer with no concessions from the workers and key provisions such as enacting cost of living raises, a moratorium on plant closures until 2026, and laying the groundwork towards ending the two-tier system. The strike involved workers across Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, most of whom stood with their coworkers on a picket line for the first time in their lives.
They began their strike on Oct. 5, at the outset of #Striketober, a nation-wide upsurge in militant labor struggles involving over 100,000 workers fighting back against their bosses’ corporate greed. Throughout the country, the combined crises of the pandemic and the accompanying global economic crash of 2020 have weighed heavily on workers. These crises brought massive unemployment, widespread evictions, and over 800,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.
This all happened while workers were being told they had to risk everything because they were essential to keeping the economy running. Under capitalism, that means ensuring companies continue to stuff the pockets of corporate executives and shareholders with record profits. Workers across the country couldn’t stand for this obvious injustice and corporate greed anymore.
“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.” (The Guardian)
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. Rather than see these profits go towards the workers who sacrificed so much to make it possible, the company increased the pay of CEO Steve Cahillane. In 2020, he made $11.7 million — a 20% increase from 2019. Despite these record profits, the bosses came to the bargaining table with the union this year demanding the expansion of the two-tier system to continue to squeeze more from the workers and leave all future Kellogg’s workers immediately worse off. Stacie Hartman, a striking Kellogg’s worker, said that when it comes to bosses at Kellogg’s, “Everything is about corporate greed and how much money they can put in their pocket.” (@NoahRiffe/Twitter)
After striking for nine weeks, the workers resoundingly rejected the first tentative agreement on Dec. 7. In the first TA, the company kept in place the same two-tier system that divided workers at the plants into two classes, pushing current workers in the upper tier to sell out all future hires to secure their own position. Two-tier systems are a typical boss strategy used to divide workers against each other and force concessions on the workers under threat of plant closures and offshoring. However, Kellogg’s workers showed their resolve by standing together against any two-tier division in their plants and voting down the TA.
Kellogg’s worker Kevin Bradshaw expressed solidarity for future workers as the core of their fight. “We’re fighting for equal pay and equal benefits. If we were to agree to anything that the company has said, more employees still wouldn’t have the same opportunities as myself to be able to retire with the same pension, the same benefits, the same insurance, and in order to provide a livelihood for their families that we all aim to provide.” (Democracy Now)
This came on the heels of the historic victory of John Deere workers, who showed their strength by voting down two TAs and staying out on strike long enough to win key concessions in the same fight against their two-tier system. Their victory no doubt inspired workers at Kellogg’s to see that they too could hold out against their own Fortune 500 employer and win.
Kellogg’s responded ruthlessly to the workers’ rejection of the TA by threatening to move production to Mexico where they could exploit workers for $0.97 per hour, and to immediately hire permanent replacement workers at the plants in the United States. These are the same threats the company used to pressure Kellogg’s workers to give up their cost of living raises and introduce the two-tier system back in 2015, and the same threats bosses have been using for decades now to undercut workers. Despite these attempts to pit workers against each other across borders and generations, they remained united in the face of these scare tactics.
With growing national awareness of labor struggles, workers across the country and the world showed their solidarity with the striking workers. Supporters of the strike, organized through Reddit and TikTok, began to flood the application system to hire scab labor with thousands of fake applications, fully shutting down and crashing the system multiple times. (The Verge)
With such widespread support, prominent politicians even began to show their support. This includes President Biden speaking against the practice of hiring permanent replacement workers, though he has failed to do anything thus far to concretely support the right of workers to organize by passing the PRO Act.
Despite the threats to hire scabs, the workers knew they had the upper hand over their employer and could hold out to defeat the two-tier system. Workers called out the company’s threat to hire replacement workers for what it is. Bradshaw said, “It’s another scare tactic from a greedy company. … Because we know they can’t hire enough people to replace us to do a skilled job.” (Democracy Now) And he was right.
As the economy recovers and businesses open after shutting down due to the pandemic, there are now three job openings for every two workers looking for a job. That means that instead of being forced to compete against each other just to have a job, workers have the leverage to hold out for better pay, benefits and a dignified retirement.
The capitalist media calls it a “labor shortage” and blames “overly generous” unemployment benefits, but workers know what it really is. After workers were told to risk everything to work through the pandemic just to pack the pockets of the rich, they are not going to take it anymore or be told to “be grateful just to have a job.” The workers called the company’s bluff, and ultimately they were right that they were stronger than Kellogg’s, as the company bled profits and failed to hire enough scabs to keep up production. The bosses had no choice but to give in.
The final contract secured by the iron resolve of the striking workers resulted in some truly remarkable wins. They secured the cost of living raises they were forced to concede in 2015, ensuring that the rising inflation doesn’t drown workers. They ended the permanent two-tier system, showing to workers across the country that it is possible to fight back through intergenerational solidarity against this common tactic by the capitalists to divide us. And finally they won a plant closure moratorium through 2026, directly answering to the scare tactics by their employer, though the threat still looms beyond the life of the contract.
As important as the victories secured in the contract is the new sense of confidence and solidarity forged between these workers over the course of their struggle against their employer. After ratification of their contract, there was an outpouring of gratitude from the workers for themselves and their community. One transitional worker who has been denied benefits by the two-tier system said, “I want to thank the Full Time employees for putting themselves on the line for us.” Another worker thanked their wife for taking on extra shifts to support them while they were on the picket lines: “Without her I could not have done this!”
Kellogg’s workers, like millions of other workers across the country, are done taking the concessions pushed on them for decades. They won’t take the same deal anymore from the bosses and are now standing together resolutely against their bosses and showing their strength. Hartman captured the sentiment of her coworkers when she said: “You sell your soul to Kellogg’s and then you retire. And then you die. And I don’t want to be that person. I want the future to be better than it is now.” That desire for a brighter future has ignited a fighting spirit for these workers who will continue to inspire millions to fight for the future of our entire class.
Feature image: Oct. 27 solidarity rally in Kellogg Square, Battle Creek. Liberation photo