A grainy photo of a lone Kellogg’s factory worker holding a picket sign in a torrential downpour has gone viral on social media, amid a 1,400-worker strike that has shut down all of Kellogg’s ready-to-eat cereal factories in the United States.
Thousands of people are sharing the picture on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook groups as a wave of striking workers, galvanized by stagnating wages, extreme hours, and the pandemic, is emerging across the country.
The person in that photo is Jason Schultz, a 44-year-old forklift operator who works in packaging at the Kellogg’s factory in Omaha, Nebraska, where workers have been on strike since October 5. The factory makes 27 products, including Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes, Special K, and Corn Pops.
When a rainstorm swept through Omaha this week, gusty winds blew union tents over, and many workers headed to their cars for shelter, but Schultz decided to stay on the picket and get drenched.
“I decided to stay out there because we had cars coming by, and that’s why we’re out there, to make sure everyone knows we’re not leaving,” Schultz told Motherboard. “We are prepared to stay out one day longer than the company if that's what it takes.”
A strike captain, Schultz is in charge of ensuring that one of the factory’s six gates is manned 24/7 during the strike. This is for increasing the strike’s visibility to cars and people passing by, but also to prevent other workers from crossing their picket line, which is a violation of unionized workers’ contracts. (Kellogg’s has reportedly hired replacement workers, known as “scabs” to keep production going during the strike.)
Kellogg’s workers shut down factories in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Michigan last week after their union negotiators and the company failed to reach a contract agreement.
The company wants to expand a two-tier employment system, which offers less pay and benefits to new hires. Workers, whose union is the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union, worry that soon the company will push all workers into the lower tier.
Schultz said that 10 years ago, he followed his father to work at Kellogg’s in Omaha because it was a good-paying, secure job in the area. But things have since gone downhill. “I can’t say it’s what it used to be,” he said. “They’ve taken a lot away from new hires coming in, but we’re trying to get it back. It’s a good job if we get it equal again.”
These cuts coincide with severe understaffing, and managers forcing them to work overtime during the pandemic without a day off for months. During the pandemic. Schultz told Motherboard that he did not receive a day off for months, including weekends.
Meanwhile, Kellogg’s business has boomed during the COVID-19 lockdown. Last year, Kellogg’s CEO, Steve Cahillane, took home more than $11.6 million.
Kellogg’s strikers are receiving $105 a week from the union’s strike fund for the duration of the strike, not nearly enough to make ends meet. Workers are also receiving donations to their strike funds.
“We’ve got a lot of people who saved up ahead of time for the strike,” Shultz said. “Others have gotten part-time jobs. We’ve stressed to guys on the line that if they need to get a job, they can do that, because family comes first.”
Shultz said that between his shifts manning the gate, helping out other shifts, and taking care of his four step-kids at home, he hasn’t slept more than 30 minutes in the past three days.
“We’re united on this. No one is giving in,” Shultz said. “We’re all standing strong.”