Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers are on day nine of a strike at a production plant in Topeka, Kansas that makes Fritos, Tostitos, Doritos, Cheetos, and Funyuns.
In recent days, the appalling working conditions at Frito-Lay have gone viral on Twitter—fueling a national conversation about the leverage low-wage workers have at this particular moment to demand more from large corporations after years of stagnant wages, few opportunities, and a deadly pandemic.
Many of the 850 workers at the facility say they work 84 hours a week with no days off. Workers are nominally supposed to work eight-hour shifts, but because of shortages, workers are often forced to add on an extra four hours before or after their shifts. Workers call these extended shifts "suicides," because they say the schedule kills you over time. Some workers haven't had a single day off in five months, including Saturdays and Sundays.
The grassy lawn outside the factory has transformed into a picket line, drawing crowds of hundreds of workers and union members from around Kansas. The struggle at Frito-Lay is a reminder that the eight hour workday–"eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will"—that workers won in bloody labor battles of the late 19th century can no longer be taken for granted.
In its latest contract offer, Frito-Lay has said it would raise wages by four percent over the next two years and put a cap at 60 hours a week. Frito-Lay workers who are unionized with Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 218 say that's not enough, and are demanding an end to forced overtime.
Motherboard spoke to Mark McCarter, a 59-year-old palletizer and union steward at Frito-Lay, who has worked at the Topeka facility for 37 years, about his job and why he's striking. - Lauren Kaori Gurley
I've worked at the Frito-Lay factory in Topeka, Kansas since I was 19, straight out of high school. I'm a palletizer. I run huge robots that are probably 15 or 20 feet tall and they transport product that comes from the production floor that's already been packaged—Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, all the Cheetos.
After 37 years, I still get forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Seven years ago, my wife passed away and I spent a lot of time in grief counseling, and I told the company, I don't want to work 12 hours a day seven days a week. I ended up getting FMLA [Family Medical Leave Act unpaid leave], but they're still having me do it sometimes. You come in at 7 a.m. and not only do you work eight hours, but when you get off at 3 p.m., they suicide (force you to work a double shift) you and have you come back at 3am. There's 850 employees and it's true for half or three quarters of them.
This job wears you down, it tires you, and makes you mentally exhausted. It plays with your mind. Some of these guys who work 12 hours a day everyday are destroying their marriages. They're destroying their families. My wife passed away and I don't have a wife to go home to to say, 'Hey babe I'm only working eight hours tomorrow," but a lot of these guys come in with the understanding that they'll be here for eight hours but then they got to call their wives and kids and say, "Guess what? It's not eight hours. It's 12 hours and then I have to go back to work at 3am."
Frito-Lay has been told they need to fix this but unfortunately, when they bring in new people, they force the same schedule on them and they quit. Frito-Lay has waited so long to replace workers, and now Frito Lay has a horrible reputation in town so a lot of people won't work here.
“I think people are pushed to the edge. COVID created some of this. During COVID, managers got to work from home. People see that and realize they have other options.”
This is not a good job. At 7am, our warehouse is 100 degrees. We don't have air conditioning. We have cooks in the kitchen on the fryers that are 130 or 140 degrees making chips and sweating like pigs. Meanwhile, the managers have A/C.
I make $20.50 [an hour] after 37 years here. Most people make between $16.50 and $20 an hour. I haven't gotten a raise in a decade. Three years ago, I got a $600 bonus that was taxed, and three years before that I got another $600 bonus. That was my only "raise" for the past 10 years. This is from a Fortune 500 company that is making billions.
I can tell you that many people have had heart attacks in the heat at Frito-Lay since I've been here. One guy died a few years ago and the company had people pick him up, move him over to the side, and put another person in his spot without shutting the business down for two seconds.
It seems like I go to one funeral a year for someone who's had a heart attack at work or someone who went home to their barn and shot themselves in the head or hung themselves.
This used to be a bomb place to work. We had picnics together. We'd go to Worlds of Fun [an amusement park] together. We had community, lunch served, Christmas ham, Thanksgiving turkey. We'd do all that. These days we do absolutely nothing for employees. We work them; we send them home. It's demoralizing and it's truly nuts how a Fortune 500 company can get away with this kind of foolishness.
I stay here because in two years, I'll be 62 and I have a union pension acquired over 37 years. I've spent so much time here that I might as well take that pension and social security and call it quits.
We've had the right to strike for many decades, but we've never done it here in Topeka until now. This year, so many people have been working 12 hour days for five, six months at a time, they voted to strike in huge numbers.
I think people are pushed to the edge. COVID created some of this. During COVID, managers got to work from home. People see that and realize they have other options. Everyone's hiring and raising their pay because no one wants to work for $8 an hour anymore.
We would rather nobody buy any Frito-Lay products, Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, Funyuns, Cheetos, all those, while we're on strike. We make all of those in Topeka, Kansas. We also would rather nobody buys PepsiCo products while we're on the line. PepsiCo is the owner of Frito-Lay.
We're hoping we can get these people back to work with a decent wage and some kind of alternative to all this forced overtime. Honestly, I don't know how what they're doing is legal.
A spokesperson for Frito-Lay told Motherboard, “Frito-Lay is committed to providing a safe and fair workplace for all of our employees, and we provide resources for any employee struggling with depression or other mental health issues. We have no knowledge of any associate taking their own life as a result of work conditions, and there have been no confirmed job-related deaths at the Topeka plant.
“Further, we wholly reject the recent allegation that an employee ‘collapsed and died’ and the company ‘moved the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going.’ We are aware of only two instances in the last five years in which an individual has experienced a medical emergency at the plant that unfortunately resulted in that individual passing away. In both cases, medical attention was initially provided at the plant and work ceased until the associates were safely on the way to the hospital.” – Frito-Lay
A previous version of this article said PepsiCo owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Those brands were spun-off in 1997. Motherboard regrets the error.