A strike that began at a Nabisco factory in Portland, Oregon last week has now spread across the country to Nabisco facilities in Aurora, Colorado, and Richmond, Virginia, where Oreos, Ritz crackers, Chips Ahoy, and other popular cookies and crackers are baked and packaged.
Hundreds of striking Nabisco bakery and distribution workers who are members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union have been forced to work 12 to 16-hour shifts during the pandemic, often six or seven days a week. Meanwhile, the snacks giant has proposed turning eight-hour shifts into 12-hour shifts without overtime, increasing mandatory work on weekends, and creating a two-tier healthcare plan that costs significantly more for new hires, workers say.
"Basically the main thing we’re trying to get is a fair contract. During the pandemic, we came in seven days a week. Some people worked every day—16 hours a day—for three months," Nathan Williams, an oiler who has worked at the Nabisco plant in Richmond, Virginia for more than 30 years, told Motherboard.
Williams said that his facility had pushed extra hours onto workers instead of hiring new workers. "For them, it’s all about finding the cheapest way to make cookies," he said.
Rusty Lewis, a striking warehouse worker at the Nabisco distribution center in Aurora, Colorado, told Motherboard that conditions have deteriorated during the 25 years he's been working for Nabisco. "It’s gotten worse. It’s gotten horrible. Horrible hours," he said. "They don’t care about frontline workers. They only care about the almighty dollar. We’re tired of getting stepped on and treated like trash. We’ve had enough."
The Nabisco strike occurs as workers around the country are using newfound leverage in a tight labor market to demand better pay, schedules, benefits, and work-life balance from their employers, especially in low-wage sectors, such as fast food, factory work, and retail where workers have suffered from increasingly unpredictable hours and stagnant pay. Last month, Frito-Lay employees at a plant in Topeka, Kansas, who belong to the same union as Nabisco workers, made national headlines when they went on strike to demand an end to triple overtime shifts, known as "suicides."
In recent days, the picket lines outside Nabisco facilities in Portland, Richmond, and Aurora have attracted hundreds of workers, community members, and politicians, who have brought sandwiches, donuts, and water. The Frito-Lay workers from Kansas have sent pizzas, and members of other unions have shown up to pickets. There have been line dances that have gone viral, rallies, and incessant honking from oncoming traffic.
Mike Burlingham, a Nabisco worker who works in pest control at the facility in Portland, Oregon, told Motherboard that the mandatory overtime has made it difficult for workers to maintain a semblance of a normal life outside of work.
"You get tired, you want to be home with your family, but it’s extremely hard to have life outside of work," Burlingham said.
This summer, Nabisco shut down food processing facilities in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and Atlanta, Georgia, two of its last five remaining food processing facilities in the United States. Those plants had been around for generations, and 1,000 workers lost union jobs. Workers in the remaining facilities are concerned that their jobs will soon be headed to Mexico, where two other Nabisco plants have opened in recent years.
"There’s a constant threat of if you don’t agree to concessions, we'll leave," Burlingham said. "There’s a lot of pride that goes into the job and the products. When I go to someone’s house, I like to say 'those Ritz were made where I work.'"
Meanwhile, Nabisco has profited handsomely during the pandemic. In 2020, Nabisco's revenue increased by 3 percent to $26.8 billion—as homebound consumers stocked up on snacks. The snack giant reported that its new revenue last quarter was $6.64 billion, an increase of 12.37 percent from last year.
Workers at the three sites are striking now because their union contracts—which are identical, known as a pattern agreement— expired earlier this summer, and the company has pushed workers toward multiple concessions. (Union organizers had strategically set up Nabisco contracts to expire that time, a tactic known as "contract line-up," a method for staging large private sector strikes.)
In 2018, Nabisco announced that it would stop offering pension benefits to its workers. Since then, the union and Nabisco have been at an impasse, failing to reach a new contract.
Workers say Nabisco's latest offer is part of a larger effort by the company to slowly erode their working conditions. The company has framed their proposed changes as a move toward “setting up our U.S. bakeries for future investment and long-term success."
"We are disappointed by the decision of the local BCTGM unions in Portland (OR), Richmond (VA) and Aurora (CO) to go on strike," a spokesperson for Nabisco wrote in a statement. "Our goal has been—and continues to be—to bargain in good faith with the BCTGM leadership across our U.S. bakeries and sales distribution facilities to reach new contracts that continue to provide our employees."
The Nabisco spokesperson denied that plant closures this summer in Georgia and New Jersey had resulted in U.S. jobs being shipped to Mexico.
"After years of misery, and concession and concession to the company, these people walked off the job," Cameron Taylor, a business agent at Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Local 364 in Portland, Oregon, told Motherboard. "I’ve never seen them so happy. People are smiling and laughing, dancing, and playing music."