Grain mill workers fight to raise the floor for all employees as sales skyrocket

“I can barely see you,” Emma Gbuchta, 9, told her father as they stood on the picket line together last weekend outside Kellogg’s grain factory in Omaha, Nebraska. She carried a handmade sign with the words “essential workers” in rainbow letters and spoke of how little time she spends with her father during the year. “Work took most of the time, so I don’t really get to see you a lot every day. That’s why I wanted to come here, ”she said.

Emma was just one of many children of all ages standing with their parents on the picket line last weekend. Stephany Perez-Vergara also came to support his mother, who has worked at the factory for about a year. “I don’t really see my mom much,” she said. “It’s hard not to see your mother every day.”

A striker I spoke with, who normally works nights, told me that his first day off since July was the first day of the strike. He had worked every day for three consecutive months.

Workers at the Omaha Kellogg factory, represented by the International Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Millers Union (BCTGM), strikes on October 5 with workers at the Kellogg’s factory in Battle Creek, Michigan; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Memphis, Tennessee. On the Omaha picket line last weekend, workers spoke of punitive schedules with little or no time off and a punitive points system based on attendance that discourages workers from making themselves sick. Workers at the Omaha plant devoted more than 3,600 hours a year to the plant, working every day of the week for months. To keep the plant running, they are scheduled seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, often working mandatory overtime. “It’s tough on you,” said Stephanie Sterling, a sanitation worker with 35 years at the plant. “It’s tough on your work-life balance, it’s tough on your body physically and mentally. ”

In recent days, Kellogg spokespersons have touted their “industry-leading level of pay and benefits” for the “majority of employees working under” what they call the “prime contract.” In a media statement published Oct. 5, the company claimed that “the average salary in 2020 for the majority of hourly RTEC employees was $ 120,000.” These numbers appear to have been presented both as evidence of Kellogg’s compensatory generosity and as evidence discrediting the union’s demands for higher pay for transitioning workers. However, Kellogg employees want the public to know that there is a lot of unspoken context behind these numbers. The strikers on the line at the Omaha plant made it clear that these wages were only possible because they work the incessantly long hours they do. A striker I spoke with, who normally works nights, told me that his first day off since July was the first day of the strike. He had worked every day for three consecutive months.

Work can also be dangerous. Plant machinery has caused a number of injuries to workers over the years, including a recent injury when a worker trapped both arms in a conveyor belt. The potential for injury in the plant is a fact that most of the workers I spoke with said just comes with the territory — it’s part of the job. Despite all of this, they come to work every day and get the job done without complaint. One thing that has come out very clearly from discussions with striking Kellogg’s workers is that they are proud of the work they do to help feed families across the United States. For them, it is serious business that they take seriously, they approach their work with professionalism and they understand the value of their experience.

What they are asking for is the recognition and respect they feel they have earned from the company. “We are fighting for the good benefits, but we certainly deserve the right benefits because of all that we sacrifice,” said Greg Gbuchta as he stood with his family on the picket line outside the stadium. ‘factory. “You know, equal pay for all. We all work the same number of hours, exactly the same work. We all deserve the same pay and the same benefits.

In 2015, the company introduced a tier system that divides employees into two categories. The lower level, called the “transition level”, is made up of new employees and does not offer the same pay and benefits as higher level workers. According to BCTGM Local 50G chairman Dan Osborn, who has worked at the Omaha plant for 18 years, about 90% of new hires in recent years, all of whom have been directed to the ‘transition level’, are black men and women. who earn $ 12 / hour less than their “old” counterparts. The 2015 contract negotiated by the union capped these transitioning workers at 30% of the workforce. The theory was this: as higher-level “old” workers retire, transition workers would then move up to take their place. As many workers see, this just did not happen. “The company never wants to give the opportunity to these people in transition [workers] never do what they’re supposed to do [while] work extended hours, ”said Mario Gutirrez, an apprentice electrician with seven years of seniority at the plant. “We try to keep food on the table for all of our families. “

For workers at the Omaha plant, the grain giant’s refusal to negotiate a fair contract is proof of their greed. “The company has achieved record profits thanks to COVID,” Gbuchta said. “And they’re still trying to take us. Society wants to act as if we are asking for the world and we really are not. We are simply asking for equal pay for everyone who works side by side in the factory.

“Kellogg’s reported a profit of $ 1.25 billion in 2020 ”, Michael Sainato reported in The Guardian. “Cereal sales have increased more than 8% in 2020 due to increased demand during the pandemic. The company has approved a $ 1.5 billion share buyback program from February 2020 to December 2022. Kellogg’s CEO Steven Cahillane received approximately $ 11.6 million in total compensation in 2020. ”

“People who have a lot of seniority there sometimes have a hard time keeping the machines running,” Gbuchta said. “People fresh off the streets with no experience with these machines – good luck; I hope no one will be hurt or killed.

The response to the strike was encouraging for the workers at the Omaha plant. They have received messages of solidarity from a number of other unions in the city and packages of food, water, snacks and meals frequently arrive in line. Last Saturday a number of activist groups joined the picket line for a few hours during the day shift, serving spaghetti to strikers at every entrance. They came back in the second and third shifts to do the same. The workers also received donations to their local strike fund, which they say is vital for the continuation of the strike as they depend heavily on their personal savings and a meager allocation from the international strike fund BCTGM. Solidarity is literally their lifeline.

Tevita Uhatafe, an American Airlines employee and shop steward for her local airline union (part of the Transport Workers Union), arrived from Dallas, Texas on her day off to stand on the picket line for the day. He has done the same to support Nabisco strikers in Portland and Chicago, and he plans to join the line at the Memphis Kellogg plant if the strike continues in the coming weeks. “Our solidarity is our real strength,” Uhatafe said. “One of the important things to be a trade unionist is to support each other in good times and in bad times.

This week the company started to bus in scabs to recover the factory operational, with the first teams of workers crossing the line early Monday morning. Many workers expected this to happen. Their main concern is the reduced quality of the product and the potential for serious injury inside the plant. “People who have a lot of seniority there sometimes have a hard time keeping the machines running,” Gbuchta said. “People fresh off the streets with no experience with these machines – good luck; I hope no one will be hurt or killed.

For Gutirrez and many other workers waiting in Omaha, this struggle extends far beyond a single contract negotiation and represents a struggle all too well known to the working class. “For everyone in our class, we all have children, we all have families who one day want to live well for their families, and that’s the only way to do that: by standing up for each other and by not letting the big dogs try to break us down and trample on us.

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