One month ago, roughly 1,400 workers at Kellogg’s cereal plants across the country went on strike. The workers at the four facilities — in Battle Creek, Michigan (the company’s hometown and site of its headquarters); Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Memphis, Tennessee; and Omaha, Nebraska — opposed the company’s offer on a new five-year contract.
The key issue is Kellogg’s desire to expand a two-tier system in the contract. The workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM), a union that has struck at both Frito-Lay and Nabisco in recent months. They say the company’s desire to expand the contract’s tiers would undermine their union by pitting workers against one another while also placing a target on the back of those workers slotted into the higher tier, as the company would see them as a cost in need of cutting.
The specifics of how this works are as follows: in a previous contract, workers agreed to the creation of a “transitional” class of employees who receive lower pay and benefits. That category is capped at 30 percent of the workforce, a means of keeping Kellogg’s from simply hiring more and more lower-cost workers. But in the latest negotiations, the company is pushing to lift that cap, all but ensuring the company will steadily phase out the livable wages and benefits current workers have secured in favor of transforming Kellogg’s jobs into low-paid work.
As Kevin Bradshaw, vice president of Local 252G and a case-sealer operator at the Memphis plant, where he has worked for twenty years, told me when the strike began, two-tier threatens the future of the workplace and the union itself. “Why would any worker in the future want to be a part of a union that sold them out and allows them to work the rest of their lives with no insurance and no benefits once they retire?” he asked.
It is an existential question — one over which Kellogg’s workers are willing to strike. They are not alone in seeing it that way. In a range of industries, workers are rejecting tiered contracts, even if it means going on strike.
At John Deere, where ten thousand United Auto Workers (UAW) members are still on strike after recently rejecting another tentative agreement, the company’s proposal to weaken benefits for new hires has provoked ire and outrage among a workforce already subject to a tiered system that was originally instituted in 1997. At Kaiser Permanente, too, some fifty thousand health care workers are preparing to walk off the job to resist, among other issues, the company’s desire to lower wages for people hired beginning in January 2023.
Kellogg’s, like these other employers, hasn’t realized the moment we’re now in. Workers have leverage in a tighter-than-usual labor market, and a growing number of those in unions are using that strength to refuse concessions and try to claw back those to which they previously agreed.
Workers at Kellogg’s cereal plants know they aren’t alone in taking this stand, and they know, too, that Kellogg’s has the money to agree to their proposals. Sales are up; Steve Cahillane, Kellogg’s CEO, made roughly $11.6 million last year; and the company recently authorized $1.5 billion in stock buybacks to boost shareholders’ returns. In light of these numbers, the argument that Kellogg’s can’t afford to accede to workers’ demands falls apart.
Yet the company is still resisting, trying to coerce those who kept its profits flowing for the past year — some of whom worked more than one hundred days straight — even at risk to their health and that of their families. Kellogg’s shut off workers’ health insurance when the strike began, a heinous attempt to force workers to agree to concessions, and a reminder that tying health care to employment status always gives the boss an advantage.
“Most are doing okay, but a few have health conditions that now don’t have any medical insurance, because the company cut our insurance off,” Bradshaw told me of Kellogg’s decision to deny strikers their health insurance. “We have people with scheduled surgeries, and some who, just as we speak, have been diagnosed with cancer — who have worked more than twenty years, who today can’t even get chemo and other treatments they need. Kellogg’s is playing really dirty!”
After weeks of silence, as workers continued their strike and Kellogg’s sought scabs, the company finally reached out to BCTGM in late October about returning to the bargaining table. As the union told members at the time, “They have finally signaled their willingness to reach an agreement that will include a path for all current and future employees to fully loaded wages and benefits to get rid of the two-tier system.”
On November 2, the bargaining committee offered another update. Negotiations had resumed, stretching late into the evening. But “there has been very little movement from the company on anything.” Kellogg’s decision to resume bargaining “seems as though [it] was just a media grab.”
The next day, the committee offered its latest update. Negotiations had ended at 5:19 p.m. after the company gave the union its last, best, and final offer. The committee wrote:
That offer does not achieve what we were asking, a pathway to fully vetted workers without takeaways. The company said they would get off their two-tier and get to a pathway, but they could not find a fully benefited way to achieve this. With this issue, we were unable to address the other items that are still on the table. We cannot recommend this offer and will not bring it back for the membership to vote on. We agreed that we will not have concessions, and that is all their last offer was.
We will be home tomorrow. We will continue this fight for as long as it takes!
Continue to hold the line and stand strong.
In a statement yesterday, BCTGM said, “Kellogg’s continues to insist on takeaways. The company came to the table insisting that there will only be an agreement if the union accepts the company proposal exactly as it has been written. The company’s proposal was filled with conditions and terms as to what was acceptable to Kellogg’s. These terms and conditions are unacceptable to our members.”
There are no more bargaining dates on the calendar. Workers say donations to their strike fund are appreciated, as they will hold the line until the company changes its tune.