Nabisco workers say strike is “for the American middle class”

Nabisco workers now walking picket lines in four U.S. states say their first strike in 52 years is about keeping what they already had as employees producing Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and other snacks for the global food conglomerate.

More than 1,000 Nabisco workers are staying off the job in Colorado, Illinois, Oregon and Virginia, according to their union, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International, or BCTGM. The labor dispute began with workers at the Nabisco bakery in Portland calling a strike nearly three weeks ago and has since spread, with workers in Chicago joining the labor action on Thursday.

“We’re fighting for a fair contract, no concessions,” Yvette Hale, who has worked at Nabisco’s Chicago bakery nearly 22 years, told CBS MoneyWatch. “Everyone is angry, as you never know if you’re going to work eight hours, 12 hours or 16 hours.”

Nabisco workers have been working without a contract since the end of May, with negotiations breaking down after its parent company, Mondelez International, proposed changes that include turning eight-hour shifts into 12-hour ones without overtime. Workers would receive overtime on the sixth and seventh day, provided they worked their scheduled hours during the week. The company is also proposing that new hires shoulder additional costs of health insurance. 

A spokesperson for Chicago-based Mondelez said the proposed changes are intended to “promote the right behaviors” among workers and avoid paying employees a premium for weekend work if they call in sick during the regular work week. 

“This is not about taking away overtime,” the spokesperson said. Most Nabisco workers would not be affected by the changes, which would largely involve those involved in manufacturing products that are heavily in demand, she added.

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Nabisco workers on the picket line outside the food maker’s plant in Chicago, Illinois, on August 20, 2021. BCTGM Local 1

Employees at Nabisco said working conditions deteriorated after the company was sold to Kraft Foods in 2000, which spun off its global snacks business as Mondelez International in 2012.

“Nabisco was a real big family, they treated us with respect. Mondelez just wants us to work, work, work — 16-hour days through this whole pandemic,” said April Flowers-Lewis, who has worked at the Nabisco plant in Chicago for 27 years. “People are scared to come to work on Saturdays because they make us work 16 hours. We’re short-staffed, but they don’t want to hire.” 

Nabisco’s management team worked from home during the pandemic, while production line personnel were often on the job seven days a week, sometimes working 16-hour shifts, said Veronica Hopkins, the business agent for BCTGM Local 1, which represents roughly 345 workers at Nabisco’s Chicago plant and another 25 workers at its facility in Addison, Illinois. 

“Maintaining what we have”

“What this fight is all about is maintaining what we currently have. We’re dealing with a company who in 2020 had a record year,” Mike Burlingham, a Nabisco worker for 14 years in Portland and vice president of BCTGM Local 364 said in an interview with Status Coup News and distributed by the union. “This is a fight for the American middle class.” 

“If it wasn’t for us in the factories and in the distribution centers getting the products on the shelves, there would be no record profits for these guys,” he added.

While the strike is the first at Nabisco since one lasting 56 days in 1969, the company has faced more recent labor disputes. The city of Chicago in July announced that Mondelez would pay $475,000 in restitution to workers denied sick leave pay, as well as a $95,000 fine, according to local PBS affiliate WTTW. 

Frontline workers’ mental health struggles 02:42

Mondelez said the company was in the midst of contract negotiations when a new law requiring one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked, or up to 40 hours in a 12-month period, took effect. 

Mondelez’s decision to shift Oreo production from Chicago to Salinas, Mexico, became a presidential campaign issue in 2016, with Donald Trump vowing he’d stop eating the cookies and Hillary Clinton saying she’d remove tax breaks for companies that ship U.S. jobs to other countries.

Two factories closed

“We are disappointed by the decision of the local BCTGM unions,” Mondelez said Friday 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 with good wages and competitive benefits, including quality, affordable healthcare and company-sponsored Enhanced Thrift Investment 401(k) Plan, while also taking steps to modernize some contract aspects which were written several decades ago.”

The strikes are not expected to disrupt production at the facilities, according to Mondelez, which had profits of $3.6 billion in 2020 on revenue of $26.6 billion.

The labor dispute comes after Nabisco shuttered plants in Atlanta, Georgia, and Fair Lawn, New Jersey, last month after announcing the moves earlier in the year. Another source of friction for workers came when Mondelez eliminated pensions in 2018 and switched to 401(k) plans.

The Nabisco strikes comes on the heels of a nearly three-week walkout by hundreds of Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas, protesting back-to-back 12-hours shifts with only eight hours off in between. Also represented by the BCTGM, the workers are back on the job after ratifying a new union contract that guarantees them one day off a week.