Nabisco Workers Return To Their Jobs Following 5-Week Strike

Their union successfully resisted an inferior health care plan but agreed to a new weekend schedule that could affect overtime pay.
Packages of Oreo cookies line a shelf in a market in Pittsburgh on Aug. 8, 2018.
Packages of Oreo cookies line a shelf in a market in Pittsburgh on Aug. 8, 2018.
Gene J. Puskar via Associated Press

The workers who make and distribute Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and other Nabisco snacks are returning to work this week following a five-week strike that brought national attention to the working conditions inside their plants.

They got a lot of what they fought for ― heading off a serious overhaul of the company’s health care plans ― but they didn’t get everything.

The work stoppage involved nearly 1,000 employees at sites in Portland, Oregon; Aurora, Colorado; Chicago; Richmond, Virginia; and Norcross, Georgia. They were resisting an attempt by Mondelez International, the company that owns Nabisco, to end some of their overtime pay premiums and put newer hires on a more expensive health care plan, among other proposed changes.

The workers’ union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM), reached a tentative agreement with the company last week and put the proposal up for a vote on Saturday. Members voted 590 to 201 in favor of ratifying it, according to union officials.

That breaks down to 75% in favor of the agreement and 25% against it, suggesting that a sizable minority wanted to remain on strike and return to the bargaining table with Mondelez.

Darlene Carpenter, the business agent for BCTGM Local 358 in Richmond, said members there were “ecstatic” about the contract. The international union did not tally votes individually from the five work sites but instead pooled all of them into one count, so Carpenter doesn’t know what the vote breakdown was in Richmond. But she believes it was overwhelmingly in favor.

“It’s a win-win,” Carpenter told HuffPost. “Richmond, Chicago, Colorado and Georgia, they’re tickled to death.”

That left Portland. Mike Burlingham, vice president of BCTGM Local 364 and a longtime employee at the Portland facility, said many members in his area had concerns about the proposal. Workers there had urged workers in other locations to vote against the deal, as the Portland Mercury reported last week.

“I have to assume that the majority of the ‘no’ votes came from Portland, considering how open and vocal everyone here was against it,” Burlingham said.

He acknowledged that the strike succeeded in many ways. Perhaps most significantly, the union resisted the company’s attempt to make changes to the health care plan. What Mondelez had proposed is commonly called a two-tier system: Current employees would retain their same high-quality plan, while new hires would pay more in deductibles and premiums.

In addition to reducing the compensation of future workers, this scheme can sow division within a union over time since people are rewarded differently for the same work. Carpenter said it was crucial that they fought off that concession.

“They wanted to do that two-tier system. That’s gone,” she said. “There are no changes to health care.”

There were other wins in the contract, too.

Mondelez will double its match to workers’ 401(k) plans and increase short-term disability payments, according to a copy of the agreement first posted by the media outlet More Perfect Union. Workers will receive a 60-cent-per-hour raise every year of the four-year contract, and receive a $5,000 ratification bonus for approving the contract.

Such bonuses are common in deals that end strikes, after workers have sacrificed their wages and survived on money from the union’s strike fund. In this case, many Nabisco workers had taken on part-time jobs to replace at least part of their lost income.

So why did some workers want to vote against the contract?

For Burlingham and other employees in Portland, it was about changes in the agreement regarding scheduling and overtime.

“It’s because of the verbiage of the weekend crew,” Burlingham said. “Many of us feel it’s just that foot in the door for an alternative workweek, which was a big thing that we went on strike for.”

Burlingham was referring to a proposal from Mondelez to move to a scheduling system in which some workers would clock in for three 12-hour shifts between Friday and Monday. This was a nonstarter for many members because they had long enjoyed weekend pay premiums that boosted their wages and discouraged the company from scheduling weekend work. Workers received time and a half on Saturday and double time on Sunday.

The two sides ultimately reached a compromise. No current workers would be forced into the three-day weekend shifts, but Mondelez would have the ability to hire new crews to work that schedule without much of a premium (they would work 36 hours and be paid for 40). The amount of work given to these new crews would be limited so that current workers could still get some weekend overtime if they wanted it.

It’s a better arrangement for workers than Mondelez initially proposed, but it is still a kind of two-tier system since new hires would work between Friday and Monday on lesser terms.

“Anyone who comes in the door will be subject to this new schedule,” Burlingham said. “They’re just going to get hired right in and will be stuck on it for an entire year before they can even be considered moving out of that. To me, I don’t like it.”

Another worker from Portland, who asked to remain anonymous due to privacy reasons, agreed with Burlingham.

“The weekend crew will be lower seniority but end up taking the premium pay ability from higher seniority [workers],” they said. “But they’ll be working for straight pay.”

Even so, “we got most of what we wanted,” the worker said.

A Mondelez spokesperson said in an email that there was “no specific timeline” for hiring the weekend crews. The company has been hosting post-strike orientation programs this week at the affected bakeries and distribution centers as full production starts back up.

Burlingham said it could be a while before workers see how the company implements the weekend shifts and how the new language affects their jobs. Even though he doesn’t like that change, he said workers never would’ve won what they did had they not taken a stand and garnered so much public support, from Portland locals to actor Danny DeVito.

“For most of us, this was the very first time we’ve ever gone out on strike before. You don’t know what to expect,” he said. “More and more people started showing up, holding rallies. It was amazing. It lifted our spirits. It’s what helped us go on. We got stronger because of it.”

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