Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Kellogg.
As a strike of more than 1,400 Kellogg workers enters its second week at the company's ready-to-eat cereal plants, a union representative tells Food Dive they are sticking to their demands despite the threat of a lawsuit and plans to bring in salaried and contract workers to reopen the factories.
Trevor Bidelman, president of the Battle Creek, Michigan, chapter of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, is a 17-year employee at the local Kellogg factory. He told Food Dive the strike is "really about the future worker." The proposed contract offered by Kellogg, according to the union, includes a two-tiered payment plan for new employees that would not give them the ability to eventually receive "full benefits" and retirement pension plans.
“When it boils right down to it, we will not accept a two-tiered benefit system where the path to premium healthcare and pensions are not available,” Bidelman said.
In a statement this Tuesday, Kellogg said the union has "greatly misrepresented" its proposal. The company said that most employees working under the current contract have "industry-leading pay and benefits" and all have "above-market" wages and retirement, and that the proposal offers employees "significant increases in wages, benefits and retirement." It said the average earnings for most of its hourly ready-to-eat cereal employees was $120,000 in 2020, and more than one-third earned between $120,000 and $200,000. Kellogg said most employees have no-cost comprehensive health insurance, and less senior workers have the same health insurance plan as salaried employees but pay "much lower" employee contributions, an arrangement it said the union agreed to in 2015.
In a previous statement to Food Dive, spokesperson Kris Bahner said the union's complaints were without merit as its compensation and benefits are "among the industry's best."
Another key complaint by the union focuses on forced overtime work. Workers at the Battle Creek facility regularly worked 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week since March 2020 in order to meet high cereal demand, according to Bidelman. This is as cereal consumption increased 11% during the pandemic as people had more time for breakfast at home.
Some workers, he added, would routinely volunteer to take the 16-hour shifts so that others would not be forced to by Kellogg plant managers.
“During this entire pandemic, we never stopped production one time,” Bidelman said.
In its statement, Kellogg said that most cereal employees worked an average of 52 to 56 hours a week in 2020, but that "90% of the time," workers volunteered for overtime. Kellogg said unplanned overtime is “disruptive” and a problem it is "eager to solve." The company said it has proposed to add a fourth crew to allow more time off, but that the union has "rejected any proposals that might change current work schedules."
Meanwhile, BCTGM does not appear to be concerned by a lawsuit filed by the cereal giant against the union for “improper actions” that it says intends to cause the company financial harm. Bidelman said it’s "typical" of Kellogg to use its legal team to handle labor disputes instead of its labor negotiators.
In a statement to Food Dive, Kellogg spokesperson Kris Bahner said Kellogg is "ready, willing and able" to meet with the union to negotiate the contract. She said the legal action the company has taken "is solely in response to the union's refusal to meet and bargain in good faith, and their rush to strike."
The union has also alleged that Kellogg has threatened to move its production lines to Mexico to save costs. Bidelman said the company has been shifting jobs to Mexico since the mid-1990s, when it closed its San Leandro, California, plant. Back then, he said, the company claimed the California plant closure would only affect cereal production for the Southwestern U.S., but over time more jobs from across the country have been sent there.
In its statement, Kellogg said it is "completely false" that it has threatened to move cereal volume or jobs outside of the U.S. "as part of these negotiations."
Last week as the strike kicked into high gear, Kellogg also said it was bringing in salaried staff and "third-party resources" in order to reopen its ready-to-eat cereal plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Bidelman said that AFIMAC, the strike security firm Kellogg is using to bring in workers, has a bad track record with the company. During a 2014 employee lockout at the Memphis, Tennessee, Kellogg plant over a different contract dispute, the cereal giant brought in AFIMAC workers and one was prosecuted after filming himself urinating into products on the assembly line. In a statement to local media at the time, Kellogg said it was "outraged by this completely unacceptable situation" and that it would work with authorities to solve the situation.
According to Bidelman, the AFIMAC temporary workers are also not as adept at handling factory equipment, which he said will inevitably lead to more supply chain disruption. Last month, Kellogg announced it was investing $45 million in supply chain restructuring over the next two years, an area that North America President Chris Hood said was causing significant problems for the company during the pandemic.
“I don’t think [Kellogg] is going to help the supply chain at all — in fact, I think they’re going to harm all of us,” Bidelman said. “When we get back in, it’s going to take us probably quite a while to repair the things that they break.”
Kellogg's spokesperson told Food Dive that the temporary salaried workers will receive "the same training" as all of its U.S. manufacturing employees and that it is "just as confident in their abilities" to produce cereal.