‘We’re peons to them’: Nabisco factory workers on why they’re striking

The pandemic drove many people to the cookie jar and helped Nabisco, maker of Oreos, Chips Ahoy!, Fig Newtons and other sweet treats weather the worst of the outbreak. But as the company’s profits continue to recover, workers at its US plants are striking over the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico and concessions demanded by their employer in new union contract negotiations.

On 10 August, about 200 workers in Portland, Oregon, represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) went on strike. Union workers in Aurora, Colorado, began their strike on 12 August, followed by those in Richmond, Virginia, on 16 August and Chicago, Illinois on 19 August.

Through the pandemic, Nabisco’s parent company, Mondelēz International, has recorded billions in profits; in the second quarter of 2021, the company reported more than $5.5bn in profits and spent $1.5bn on stock buybacks in the first half of 2021. The CEO of Mondelez International received $16.8m in total compensation in 2020, 544 times the company’s median employee annual compensation of $31,000.

“It’s greed. They don’t have any respect for their workers that gave them the opportunity to make that kind of money. We’re peons to them, and everyone is at the point where enough is enough,” said Darlene Carpenter, business agent of BCTGM local 358 in Richmond and a former employee at the plant. “We’re at the point where we’re saying this is how the cookie is going to crumble now because we can’t do this.”

According to Keith Bragg, president of BCTGM local 358 who has worked at the Nabisco plant in Richmond for 45 years, during a discussion about contract negotiations with management, the company said that when the company does well, employees do well.

He took offence to this notion, citing his concerns about the treatment of workers over the past few years and the recent concessions being asked of them. During the pandemic, many workers had to work 12-hour shifts, six to seven days a week for several months and were praised as “heroes” for their roles as essential workers. But now workers are being asked to give up overtime pay and concede to a two-tier healthcare system, Bragg said, which would downgrade benefits for new employees and cut overall wages.

“They’re doing well, we’re losing all the way around,” said Bragg. “They shut down two plants this year, they’re cutting overtime, they’re making profits, but we lost half of our union membership. How is it that we’re doing well?”

In 2012, Kraft Foods split into two companies, with Mondelēz International formed as the parent company of Nabisco. Since the split, the union has been pressed to accept concessions during drawn-out contract negotiations, such as eliminating union pension contributions in May 2018 and switching to 401 retirement plans.

“A lot of folks were very close to retirement, and were able to do so under the old plan, but when the company pulled out that basically meant that they had to continue working, they were no longer eligible to retire,” said Mike Burlingham, who has worked at the Nabisco plant in Portland since 2007 and serves as vice-president of local 364. “It impacted all of us in a way that we can no longer count on this as being a place we can retire comfortably from.”

Mondelēz International has shuttered several Nabisco plants in the US over the past several years, offshoring much of the work to Mexico. The plight of its workers briefly became a campaign issue during the 2016 election cycle, with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump attacking plans to shift jobs overseas. “I’m not eating Oreos any more,” Trump told voters in New Hampshire.

But despite the political heat the trend has continued. In 2021, Nabisco plants in Fairlawn, New Jersey, and Atlanta were closed, resulting in the loss of about 1,000 jobs. Mondelēz International denied that jobs from the two plants shut down in 2021 were offshored to Mexico, but a petition for trade adjustment assistance alleging outsourcing by the union at one of the plants is under review by the Department of Labor. In 2016, hundreds of workers were laid off at the Nabisco plant in Chicago and a plant in Philadelphia was shut down in 2015.

“We can’t compete with the Mexican workers,” said Cameron Taylor, business agent at Local 364 in Portland. “They just want to exploit cheap labor. If we were to accept all of what they want us to, accept all the working conditions and the two- tiered system of healthcare, this job would turn into a job not even worth fighting for.”

In 2016, the union launched a “check the label” boycott campaign that was endorsed by the AFL-CIO, asking consumers to refuse to buy Nabisco products that are made in Mexico. Workers have frequently reported finding Nabisco products for sale near their plants that were produced in Mexico.

“We are disappointed by the decision of the local BCTGM unions in Portland (OR), Richmond (VA) and Aurora (CO) to go on strike,” said a spokesperson for Mondelēz International, noting the company has a continuity plan in place at the facilities where workers are on strike. “Our goal has been – and continues to be – to bargain in good faith with the BCTGM leadership across our US 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.”

source: theguardian.com