Hundreds of workers who make and deliver Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers have gone on strike in a massive showdown with Nabisco parent company Mondelez.
The work stoppage and 24-hour picket lines began at a production facility in Portland, Oregon, last week and have now spread to a distribution hub in Aurora, Colorado, and another production facility in Richmond, Virginia. The workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), which hasn’t been able to reach an agreement with Mondelez on new contracts.
Workers and union representatives say the strike follows years of frustration with Mondelez, which was created in 2012 when Nabisco products were spun off from Kraft Foods. Mondelez is demanding changes to pay and health care coverage that would undermine what have long been solid, middle-class production and trucking jobs, they say.
“We’re not on strike to secure huge gains. We’re on strike to keep what we’ve already got,” said Cameron Taylor, the business agent at BCTGM Local 364, which represents workers at the Portland plant. “The job they want to give us wouldn’t even be worth fighting for.”
Taylor said Mondelez wants to ditch the premium pay system that’s long been in place and that guarantees time-and-a-half pay for working more than eight hours a day, time-and-a-half pay on Saturdays, and double time for working on Sundays. Instead, workers would be paid “straight time” until they hit a full 40-hours, regardless of what days they work or how long those days last.
Mondelez spokesperson Laurie Guzzinati said the company has proposed an “alternative work schedule” for some employees who would work 12-hour shifts three or four days a week. The schedule would offer a three-day weekend every other week, Guzzinati said, while helping the company meet production on its most high-demand products.
But workers said such a plan would take thousands of dollars out of their pockets each year. Mike Burlingham, who’s been at the Portland site for 14 years and works in pest control, said the proposal would encourage imposing longer shifts on workers because they would be cheaper for the company, even though the schedule can already be a grind.
“My longest stretch without a single day off was five weeks, and it’s worse for other people,” said Burlingham, 39, who also serves as vice president of the Oregon local. “Their whole thing is to remove paying out premiums.”
Burlingham said top pay at his facility is $29 per hour, while new hires earn closer to $20. He estimates that some workers could lose $10,000 a year if the premiums were removed.
“The job they want to give us wouldn’t even be worth fighting for.”
Keith Bragg, president of BCTGM Local 358 in Richmond, said workers at his plant agree. Bragg has worked for 45 years at the facility, where they make Ritz, Oreos and Chips Ahoy.
If the company secures this new pay structure in its contracts, Bragg said, “We wouldn’t be one of those places where people want to come and make a career out of it. … The money, the benefits ― these are things we fought for over the years.”
In addition to changing premiums, the company’s proposal would also put new hires on a less-generous health plan while maintaining the status quo for existing employees, union representatives said. Such “two-tier” benefit systems can sow acrimony within unions since different groups of workers are treated differently under the same contract.
Mondelez said in a statement that it was “disappointed” to see three locations go on strike: “Our goal has been — and continues to be — to bargain in good faith with the BCTGM leadership across our U.S. bakeries and sales distribution facilities to reach new contracts that continue to provide our employees with good wages and competitive benefits.”
The company said its most recent proposal was focused on “setting up our U.S. bakeries for future investment and long-term success.”
Bragg said many workers are angry over the closures of Nabisco production lines in New Jersey and Georgia this year. The Fair Lawn, New Jersey, bakery ran for 63 years and employed 600 workers, while the Atlanta bakery ran for nearly 80 years and employed 400. Mondelez also made headlines during the 2016 presidential election after it decided to move some Oreo production to Mexico from Chicago.
The BCTGM says Mondelez wants to transfer more production work out of the country, but Guzzinati insisted the closures in New Jersey and Georgia were “not about Mexico.” She said the two facilities were outdated and the company wanted to consolidate production elsewhere.
The union says outsourcing is one of its top concerns in the contract talks, and it wants the company to guarantee certain levels of production at the facilities covered under the contracts ― something union representatives say Mondelez has refused to do.
“We go down to the grocers and we see all the product on the shelves says ‘Mexico,’” said Bragg. “But we make all this product five minutes away.”
Bragg said he has no idea how long the strike might last, but said the workers at his Virginia plant are willing to stay out for however long it takes.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.