BATTLE CREEK, MICHIGAN Abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses surround the city limits of the worlds cereal capital. The devastation is a familiar sight across cities in the industrial Midwest. You imagine the vibrant life past generations lived, knowing that little fault for todays ruins lies with the residents crushed by the tides of job losses from NAFTA, the 2008 financial crisis, and an insufficient economic recovery, all worsened by the last two years of the pandemic.
Still, Kellogg, a remaining fixture in this Michigan town, reported global operating profits of $1.76 billion in 2020, and its CEO Steve Cahillane took home compensation of $11.6 million. Drive downtown and the Kellogg name is emblazoned everywhere, from folksy visitor centers to large corporate brick buildings. But the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) Local 3-G is challenging the corporate giant, striking across the train tracks that circle the Battle Creek plants perimeter.
The central conflict between Kellogg and BCTGM is over the two-tier contract system, which promotes equal work for less pay by dividing workers on different pay scales according to their hire date. In 1983, American Airlines pioneered the two-tier system, and one year after its adoption, 39 percent of airline labor contracts had adopted it. Following the 2008 financial crisis, business mounted war against organized labor, and cemented the two-tier system across the auto, trucking, and manufacturing industries. Two-tier was pitched then as the only way to keep these companies in business. Today, in a much stronger labor market, it has ignited workers to go on strike across the country.
The central conflict between Kellogg and BCTGM is over the two-tier contract system, which promotes equal work for less pay by dividing workers on different pay scales.
Kelloggs 2015 contract with BCTGM instituted the two-tier provision. At the time, it looked like an upgrade. Before the provision, there were legacy (union) employees, and casual (non-union) employees. The contract made it so employees hired after 2015 would now be classified as transitional, at some point able to move into legacy union jobs. For every legacy employee who retired, the company promised that the longest-waiting transitional employee would move up.
Harry, an older Black gentleman whos been at the plant since 2010, remembered, We had to beg for transitional. But Kellogg didnt abide by their promises, said Carter, a younger white guy who started at the plant last December. You see people retiring, but nobody moving up. Since the adoption of the 2015 contract, 15 legacy employees have retired but only Harrys wife, Jennifer, has advanced. Currently, the worker ratio is roughly 70 percent legacy, 30 percent transitional. On the current track, workers expect the ratio to flip as legacy employees enter retirement.
I pulled up to the main gates picket line Friday morning. Nobody in Local 3-G is a stranger to hard work. Its normal to work 12-to-16-hour days, seven days a week, for weeks on end. Its grueling, but the pay is worth it. Legacy employees earn $30$33 an hour. Add overtime onto that, and its easy seeing why the job is so lucrative. Transitional employees, however, are capped at $20 an hour. One legacy worker on the picket line said in the past year, hed worked 180 days in a row, only taking the day off for Christmas because its one of two days the plant shuts down. The other is the Fourth of July.
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Many of the workers expressed skepticism when I mentioned I was a reporter. They were upset because much of the previous coverage twisted why they went on strike in the first place, because of the two-tier system. Jeff, a worker whos been at the plant since 2009, said: This isnt benefiting me. Im losing thousands of dollars being out here. The media is saying we want better wages and conditions, but thats not it. We know what we signed up for.
In the other three plants, whites compose the majority of legacy workers, while Black, Latino, and other immigrant workers are predominantly transitional. However, when I asked the workers on the picket line in Battle Creek about the transitional workers, they sharply responded: Were all the same. Same uniforms, same jobs. Same everything. Its just the title. Regardless of whether the demographics in Battle Creek reflect whats reported in the other plants, solidarity runs deep here, clearly transcending popular national narratives about tense racial relations across the country. Its not about us [legacy workers]. Its about equality, said Jeff.
ON OCTOBER 5, just weeks after the company announced 212 job cuts at the Battle Creek plant by 2023, 1,400 workers across all four of Kelloggs U.S. plants announced they would go on strike, rejecting the companys tentative agreement since it made no adjustments to the two-tier system. One worker remarked that its history repeating. Five years ago, when the last contract expired, the company announced 250 job cuts, mostly from the same plant.
The impact was felt almost immediately. On Fox59, a local station based out of Indianapolis, footage of empty shelves aired. By November, the company was importing products from its plants in Canada, Mexico, and the U.K.
At the U.S. plants, the company hired replacement workers to try to maintain production. Workers reported that the replacements were making more than transitional employees while being promised full-time work. Meanwhile, the company was providing them housing, in addition to busing them in from across the country. In the evening, I saw two buses dropping off replacement workers near the main gates plant entrance.
Quality suffered from the shift to inexperienced employees. Kelloggs Twitter account has been blaming product shortages on supply chain constraints, and responding to customer complaints of plastic-baked Cheez-Its, unpackaged Rice Krispies Treats, burnt Pop-Tarts, and more. Workers on the picket line shared photos with me of deformed cereal hitting grocery store shelves. One worker told me, Its nothing but uncooked rice! Another said, Scab food is garbage.
In an interview with The Detroit News, CEO Steve Cahillane dismissed the unions demands as unsustainable and unrealistic, and vowed to leverage the totality of our global network to keep cereal on store shelves. Despite these perfunctory remarks, chaos extends inside. Workers shared screenshots with me from a private Facebook group showing riot-like brawls between newly hired workers inside the plant. Jeff said hes been talking to the truck drivers coming in and out of the plant, and they tell him its nothing but empty trucks driving in and out to give the illusion everything is alright. One worker told me, Look at the losses the company is willing to take to crush the union.
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Kellogg has seemingly been trying to hide its brand to avoid customer boycotts. Over the weekend, in response to a Twitter user wondering why the Kelloggs logo wasnt on a box of Pop-Tarts, the company account replied: Our data show that consumers routinely focus on the visual of the Pop-Tarts brand name, so we simplified the package design by removing Kelloggs.
Many of the workers I spoke with believe the company wont admit its struggling. Jeff said, We care about the brand more than they do Its a great job, but a horrible company. Im embarrassed to say I work here.
ON DECEMBER 7, tensions escalated after the company announced it would fire its 1,400 striking workers and bring in permanent replacements. It was a response to the union rejecting the last agreement, which included 3 percent raises but no guaranteed cost-of-living adjustments.
A backlash ensued. Redditors from /r/antiwork, a popular subreddit community of 1.4 million idlers who provide information on anti-work ideas and personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles, strategized on how to retaliate against Kellogg. A TikTok user named black_madness21 coded a program to overload the companys hiring portal with bogus applications that included completed rsums, accurate ZIP codes, cities, and state information. A worker from the picket line told me, I would like to personally thank all of them.
On December 10, President Biden released a statement condemning the companys actions. Permanently replacing striking workers is an existential attack on the union and its members jobs and livelihoods My unyielding support for unions includes support for collective bargaining, and I will aggressively defend both. Two days later, Republican Governor of Nebraska Pete Ricketts authored a letter to the company. Given the extraordinary commitment displayed by Kelloggs employees over the past two years, I urge you to return to the bargaining table. Days later, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced hed be visiting the Battle Creek plant and hosting a rally.
The day before the Battle Creek rally, presumably to either prevent it or halt its momentum, the company announced a new tentative agreement, with a vote expected on Monday. The new five-year proposal offers a cost-of-living adjustment and a $1.10-per-hour raise for all employees. But the deal does nothing to reassure workers that Kellogg will end its record of broken promises.
On December 7, tensions escalated after the company announced it would fire its 1,400 striking workers and bring in permanent replacements.
Hours after the rally, the news outlet More Perfect Union reported leaked emails from management, which showed how little the new agreement advanced the ball. [The] overall bucket of money (cost) stays the same. Just shifts money from one bucket to another. No gain overall for [workers] with 3 more weeks of strike and no income. No ratification bonus. We are confident this will pass. As of this writing, the vote has not been finalized. But the companys guesses about the union rank and files reaction couldnt have been more wrong.
On the picket line, Jeff called the last-minute agreement tentative garbage. Others agreed, because it didnt address the very reason theyre on strike in the first place. It includes a four-tier wage system, even worse than the two-tier one already in place. The four categories include legacy, regular, transitional, and provisional. However, there are no provisional employees in the Battle Creek plant. Current and future transitional employees would be promoted to regular employees. But the old legacy employees would remain until they all eventually retired.
Derek, whos worked for the company for 13 years, said the point was to eliminate the legacy employees. Its about getting the union out of here. Were the strongest union and theyre coming after us. Meanwhile, 175 jobs would still be eliminated in the new agreement, and the cost-of-living adjustment would just take money out of employee pensions. Its all smoke and mirrors, Derek continued. They dont care if this one passes. Theyll just have another ready to go.
THE TENTATIVE AGREEMENT failed to stop the Sanders rally, positioned across the street from the international headquarters, in full view of management. In front of the speakers podium, rows of striking workers assembled and greeted the senator. Behind them was a diverse crowd of burly men in worn Carhartt jackets, young socialists from Detroit, old-head radical pamphleteers from Chicago, striking workers from other Kellogg plants, well-dressed middle-aged liberals, and everything in between.
The first speaker, Todd, whos worked at the plant for 24 years, said hed never been on strike before and thanked Sen. Sanders for showing up. This guy lives for a worthy fight, especially when were talking about equality. Donivan Williams, former trustee of the Local 3-G executive board, spoke next. He pointed to the headquarters and continued, The weather has been the worst Ive had to stand out for in my life. The freezing rain, the wind, its a battle. Its worth it. Soon after, Trevor Bidelman, Local 3-Gs president, said, Theyre not tired of us working seven days a week, where [management has] half-day Fridays. The only sustainable option for the company is working us to death.
Sen. Sanders then took the podium and told the crowd he was there not just because they were on strike, but because You have the courage to take on corporate greed.
I stopped again at the picket line once nightfall settled. Two strikers and a young woman gathered around a 55-gallon drum fire at the plants main gate. Harry, the older Black employee whos worked for the company since 2010 as a sprinkler operatormeaning he works on the only two days the company shuts down for cleaningwas there. So was Carter, the younger white guy who is currently a transitional employee. Both recalled their experiences from the last year. During the pandemic, we couldnt keep cereal on the shelves, said Carter. Fifteen of us caught COVID. [The company] practically forced three people to run this factory.
Despite the grueling work, everybody I spoke with felt immense pride. They hated seeing the substandard crap on store shelves. Inside the plant, its reportedly filthy, so bad that at any other time theyd get written up; instead, its going unchecked. Harry chimed in, There was an ambulance just yesterday. Around two people each week are leaving with injuries.
In the grocery industry, shelf space is the name of the game. Harry explained how he knows the company is feeling the pressure. He showed me text messages with his friend who works for the Post cereal factory down the road. For the last week, Post has been offering its workers triple overtime to keep up with demand from retail giants like Walmart, Sams Club, Costco, and more. That means Post is taking over the space that Kellogg once held. We might get some days off with how much shelf space theyve lost, Harry joked. [Grocers] dont care where they get it from. Once you lose shelf space, its not easy to get back.
Carter pointed out another vacuum truck near the plants silo, which meant something went wrong. The plant, when run properly, processes 300 pounds of cereal per second. Harry flicked his cigarette and said, If theres no smoke coming out, theyre not cooking. Our barrel [fire] has more smoke than they do.
He tossed two more logs into the barrel, and stirred the fire some more. A few moments later, Harry tapped my shoulder and said, Look over there, thats Post. We can see the smoke from over here. Theyre cooking. He pointed back to Kellogg. Theyre not.