Workers who make Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, Rice Krispies, and other cereals have shut down production at all Kellogg's factories in the United States because Kellogg's has proposed to end cost-of-living raises and expand a two-tier pay and benefits system.
Members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union say Kellogg's proposed pay and benefits cuts coincide with severe understaffing and management forcing them to work overtime during the pandemic—in some cases 16-hour days, seven days a week—without a day off for months.
The workers are striking at ready-to-eat Kellogg's plants in Omaha; Memphis; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Battle Creek, Michigan.
"We're working 12 to 16 hours a day to meet the increased demand in the cereal market," Kerry Williams, a striking mechanic who has worked at the Kellogg's factory in Lancaster for 18 years, told Motherboard. "I’ve worked for two years with no weekends off other than vacation days. You miss out on a lot—family time, don’t get to see kids play sports, don't get to see your spouse." Williams is the president of BCGT Local 374G, which represents Kellogg's workers in Lancaster.
In a statement to news outlets, Kris Bahner, a Kellogg's spokesperson said the company was "disappointed by the union's decision to strike." "Kellogg provides compensation and benefits for our US [ready to eat cereal] employees that are among the industry's best," Bahner said. "Our offer includes increases to pay and benefits for our employees, while helping us meet the challenges of the changing cereal business."
Last year, Kellogg's business boomed during the COVID-19 lockdown as people resorted to eating at home, rather than going to restaurants or ordering takeout. In 2020, Kellogg's CEO, Steve Cahillane, earned more than $11.6 million. Sales are expected to dip this year.
During the worst of the pandemic, Kellogg's workers say they were rewarded with small pay bonuses and occasional cookies for risking their lives at work. Workers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska, told Motherboard that their plants faced large COVID-19 outbreaks.
"I’d like to highlight executive level compensation, and the bonuses [executives] received during the pandemic," Trevor Bidelman, a fourth generation Kellogg's worker in Battle Creek, Michigan, told Motherboard. "All of that was made possible because we worked seven days a week 16-hours a day. Now with their greed, they want to thank us by cutting our jobs and making our future workforce have less than what our current workforce does." Bidelman is also the president of his local union.
Bidelman said some workers at his plant have worked up to 120 days without a day off because the plant is so short-staffed. In September, Kellogg's announced that it would cut 212 jobs at the Battle Creek plant, compounding deteriorating conditions with the fear that workers could lose their jobs. In recent years, Kellogg's facilities in the United States have steadily lost jobs to plants in Mexico, where labor costs are cheaper.
"It’s been steadily worse since I’ve been here, as far as how I’m treated," Bidelman, who has worked at the Battle Creek factory for 17 years, said. "The pandemic heightened it."
"It's really amazing that a company that makes and has this much money can’t staff enough people to have a day off," he continued. "We struggle getting funeral days off for an aunt or uncle [who has passed]. If it's a friend, too bad."
Unionized Kellogg's workers walked off the job on Tuesday morning, following a year-long impasse in contract negotiations at the bargaining table with Kellogg's management. Workers at the four facilities share a master contract that determines their working conditions.
Management has proposed cutting premium health care, holiday and vacation pay, and retirement benefits for new hires—and slashing a cost-of-living pay increase that mirrors inflation (the only pay increase in their union contract) for all workers at the company.
"The two-tier wage system was implemented in 2015 when Kellogg's threatened plant closure and gave a substantial signing bonus to new workers," said Dan Osborn, a mechanic at the Kellogg's plant in Omaha, and the president of his local union. "They dangled a carrot in front of us and through fear and intimidation got us to do that. Now we want to eliminate the two-tier wage system."
Creating a two-tier employment system is a common strategy that employers use to lower costs and degrade working conditions at a company without upsetting its longest-standing employees.
Kellogg's has also proposed removing the union logo from Kellogg's cereal boxes, according to workers.
The Kellogg's strike follows work stoppages at Frito-Lay in July and Nabisco in August. At both companies, workers have been pressured to make similar concessions amid the pandemic-related increase in demand for snacks.