Trevor Bidelman is a fourth-generation Kellogg’s worker. His great-grandpa, his grandpa and grandma, and his dad all worked at the storied cereal maker’s Battle Creek, Michigan, plant, making breakfast staples like Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes.
Now Bidelman is on strike with 1,400 other Kellogg’s workers at four plants, and wonders if it will be a job worth taking when his own four kids grow up.
“This is a company that’s been coming at us over and over and over while their profits grow,” said Bidelman, 40, a mechanic at the plant and president of the local affiliate of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), which represents Kellogg’s workers. “This fight is about the people coming up behind us. We’ve got to say enough is enough.”
The showdown at Kellogg’s revolves around a two-tier work system that the union says management is trying to expand at its plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Their most recent contract created a class of “transitional” employees who are paid lower rates and have lesser benefits than “legacy” employees. These newer employees can graduate into the legacy system as more tenured workers retire or quit, and the contract stipulates no more than 30% of the workforce can be “transitional.”
But workers say Kellogg’s is seeking to eliminate that cap as they negotiate a new five-year contract. Doing so, they fear, would eventually leave all employees on the lower tier after legacy employees have moved on.
“This is a company that’s been coming at us over and over and over while their profits grow.”
Although pay rates vary by position, workers said there is currently a roughly $12-per-hour difference between legacy employees and transitional employees in many roles. The latter also pay health care costs that their legacy counterparts don’t, and are on a lesser retirement plan.
Bidelman maintains that if the cap were lifted on the lower tier, then down the road Kellogg’s would no longer be middle-class-sustaining work. And while his own paycheck would not be affected, those of his future co-workers would be.
“When you look at the Battle Creek area, getting into Kellogg’s was a career,” he said. “Now they want to turn it into a job. What they don’t understand is you’re only in a job until you find a better one and grab it.”
Top pay on the legacy scale comes to around $30 per hour. Kellogg’s spokesperson Kris Bahner said in an email that the average earnings of a Kellogg’s cereal worker came to around $120,000 last year, and that most employees (i.e., legacy ones) have “unparalleled, no-cost comprehensive health insurance.”
He said the company’s proposal to the union would “offer significant increases in wages, benefits and retirement,” though presumably the company would save considerable money over time as the lower tier of workers expanded.
“We are disappointed by the union’s decision to strike,” Bahner said. “Kellogg provides compensation and benefits for our U.S. [ready-to-eat cereal] employees that are among the industry’s best.”
Dan Osborn, a plant mechanic and president of the local in Omaha, Nebraska, said legacy employees do make good money, and he doesn’t doubt many earn $120,000 or more. But a huge share of that haul comes from overtime racked up working 12- or 16-hour days, often seven days a week.
“Say you got a guy on legacy making $30 an hour. The crude math, at 40 hours a week, that would be $60,000 a year,” he explained. To get to $120,000, “that’s how much overtime people are working.”
Bidelman said his longest personal stretch of consecutive workdays without a break was 116. Osborn said many workers have no time to spend with their families.
“I don’t have any friends anymore,” Osborn said. “I’ve been there 18 years. I don’t have time for friends. The reason why I do it is because I feel my job, as a man, as a father and a husband, is to provide for my family.”
Many unionized companies would rather pay an overtime penalty with their existing workforce than hire more employees entitled to benefits under the union contract.
Osborn said the transitional program was introduced six years ago, when the union and company agreed on its last contract. He said he and other members resisted the new, lower tier but feared Kellogg’s would close the Memphis plant and nearly 300 workers would lose their jobs if they didn’t accept it. Now he believes the company is using it as a wedge.
Two-tier systems can sow discord within unions since workers are not rewarded equally for the same work. As Osborn noted, if a cap on transitional positions were removed, then eventually transitional employees would comprise the bulk of the membership. They may feel that legacy members did not look out for them, and so they might be reluctant to fight for legacy members in subsequent contract talks.
Kevin Bradshaw, who has worked at the Memphis plant for 20 years, said what the company is asking would undermine the union’s solidarity. He has tried to convey that message to his fellow employees as president of the Memphis local. He was happy to see that nearly everyone in his bargaining unit voted to authorize a strike.
“You’re driving the workforce into the ground by separating people and not treating them equally,” he said. “Same job, less money. Who would want to work that way?”
The strike at Kellogg’s, which began Tuesday, is part of a string of work stoppages declared recently by the BCTGM, which represents 60,000 workers, many of them in industrial food production. Members at chip maker Frito-Lay walked out in early July, and members at snack maker Nabisco did so in early August. Both of those strikes ended with new agreements.
The Nabisco workers successfully fought off a two-tier proposal for their health care plan, although the new contract allows the company to hire new workers for weekend shifts without the traditional pay premium.
The BCTGM told HuffPost it is not declaring a formal boycott against Kellogg’s products at the moment, as it did against Nabisco. “However,” a spokesperson said in an email, “supporters and consumers could certainly support the Kellogg workers and their fight for a fair contract by choosing NOT to buy Kellogg cereals while the strike is ongoing.”
Osborn said he has been bothered to see companies seeking concessions at a time when sales are strong. Kellogg’s had an operating profit of $1.76 billion on $13.8 billion in sales last year, according to the company’s most recent annual report. He said considering the company’s financial footing, the union went into negotiations seeking to eliminate or phase out the two-tier system. Instead, the company proposed growing it.
“I was blown away,” he said.