For 77 days, employees at Kellogg’s local cereal plant went on strike demanding the creation of a new contract to benefit workers. Beginning on Oct. 5, a team of 417 employees left their positions to picket outside of the factory until a negotiation was made.
“They were trying to take our health insurance away. They were trying to take our cost of living away. They were trying to implement an alternative work schedule,” Dan Osborn, President of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), said. While the company brought in record profits with the rise of COVID, “we worked with our numbers short. We worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. We felt we had some pretty good leverage for this contract. So our initial task was to eliminate the two-tier system.”
The two-tier system, implemented in 2015, provided an upper and lower level with different benefits for each. “What the union originally wanted was everybody at the same wage as the upper tier, which right now is about $34 an hour,” said Jay Mulkey, a facility manager at the factory. “And the people coming in [at the lower tier] get $22 an hour. It doesn’t make sense for us to pay people that are not going to stay around the same wage.” Mulkey, like many other non-participants, believes in an apprenticeship period to prevent everyone in the plant from making the same amount of money. Members of the union, on the other hand, called for equal pay for equal work.
“The lower tier employee gets about $11 an hour less. They get fewer vacations, they have higher health insurance premiums and less vacation pay,” Osborn said. “We’re doing the same jobs, but just for less pay and benefits.”
Soon, all national attention was directed on Kellogg’s as major news outlets rushed to plants in Nebraska, Michigan, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
Soon, both sides of the aisle were showing support for the workers.
“I don’t think they were anticipating the level of the traction that we gained,” Osborn said. “They certainly underestimated our will and our strength. A lot of other local unions in town wouldn’t cross the picket line.” Union Pacific, another local company and supplier of raw materials, refused to bring in train cars of factory supplies to support the strikers.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Don Bacon, and Governor Pete Ricketts were some of the many prominent political figures that sympathized with the strikers. Governor Ricketts, in his powerful letter to Kellogg’s CEO, Steve Cahillane, urged the company to prioritize their workers and work towards a settlement. “I think Kellogg’s only anticipated the left coming out in support of the Union, but they weren’t prepared for the right,” Osborn said.
“My dad’s restaurant, Jackson’s Takeout, catered at Kellogg’s from 2019 until the beginning of COVID,” senior Brejea Glass said. “We had a lot of customers that worked at Kellogg’s and they always talked about long hours and bad pay.” Glass and her family heard about the increased mistreatment of workers from their customers and made the decision to stop catering for them to stand in support.
As traction about the strike and boycott picked up, Glass’s social media timelines became flooded with information about the strike. “I remember reading an article about the boycott and several customers came in and talked about it,” Glass said. Jackson’s Takeout had since stopped catering for Kellogg’s and was satisfied with their decision.
As support continued to increase, the strike continued, while non-participants continued to work.
“We had to park at an offsite location. We got on a bus every day. Then we got driven in,” Mulkey said. “As we came into the perimeter, all of the workers were out there. For the first few weeks they tried to block our bus and shine flashlights in the bus. They held up signs and called us names. They were our own employees.”
Inside the plant, workers were temporarily replaced to continue production. “It didn’t take them very long to figure out how to run stuff,” Mulkey said. “We were running cereal within a week. Over the course of the three months there was only one production line we didn’t run.”
Kellogg’s attempted to continue as usual until word of a national boycott caught wind. “The key to approaching the settlement was the boycott,” Osborn said. “It was really gaining traction and data was showing a large percentage of people were going to boycott Kellogg’s. It gave us a lot of momentum.”
While replacement workers continued production, they could not compete with the workers on strike. On top of this, when consumers stopped purchasing Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its, Rice Krispies and Froot Loops, profits fell and Kellogg’s could no longer stay passive. On Dec. 21, a new contract was ratified and went into effect. “I am pleased we can compare where we started to where we are now,” Osborn said. “We got another 5-year contract. I think everything’s gonna be a little bit better.”
Ultimately, though, Osborn doesn’t believe the result would have been the same if workers hadn’t come together to fight for their rights. “If you’re an individual in the workplace, you have no voice,” Osborn said. “When you come together with others, you know you have a voice. True power is derived from numbers.”