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A Tale of Two Tiers: Lessons from the Kellogg Strike

Kellogg cereal workers waged one of the most important strikes of 2021, but the union bureaucracy’s declarations of victory are misleading. Not only does the new contract fail to end the two-tier wage system, it opens the door to even greater exploitation of new hires.

Daniel Nath

January 3, 2022
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Worker holding sign that reads will strike if forced

Fourteen hundred workers at four cereal factories in Nebraska, Tennessee, Michigan, and Pennsylvania went on strike against the Kellogg company from October 5 to December 21, when it was announced that a majority of strikers had voted yes to a contract with the company, and union members would go back to work after Christmas. The central goal of this strike was to get rid of the two-tier system, under which, since 2015, Kellogg has paid newer workers about $12 less per hour, with worse benefits, than more senior workers doing the same jobs. Before the strike, Kellogg paid Tier 2 workers — who were 30 percent of the workforce — $19 an hour and up, versus Tier 1 wages of $32 and up. Many picketers carried signs saying Equal Pay for Equal Work.

For two and a half months, the workforce picketed outside the gates of these cereal plants in four-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, in the cold. Strikers were angry that they had been regularly working seven days a week, and 12 hours a day, yet the company still insisted on dividing them and striving to phase out the high Tier 1 wages. Workers sacrificed two and a half months of pay in this fight — as much as $20,000. One striker told Labor Notes, “It’s all about the 30 percent. We just want a clear path for them, set in stone,” up to the Tier 1 pay scale. During earlier talks, a company negotiator said Kellogg was willing to lose $10 million per day to defeat a strike and impose its preferred contract terms.

In early November, Kellogg made what it said was its “last, best” offer. But the proposed contract would trap newer workers in Tier 2 and claw back benefits. The national leadership of the workers’ union, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM), which handled the negotiations, declared that the offer was so bad that it would not recommend it to workers or even hold a vote on it, and that the strike would continue. Kellogg has complained that its Tier 1 unionized workers earn the highest wages and benefits in the food industry, hurting its profits.

Kellogg began publicly boasting that it could outlast the strikers because it was importing cereal to the U.S. from its major plants in Mexico, Canada, and Britain, as well as running the four struck U.S. plants with white-collar employees and other scabs.

The Two Tentative Agreements

In early December, the company made a new, improved offer, which the national BCTGM bargaining team agreed to. This tentative agreement offered (limited) inflation adjustments to wages (COLA) and a real raise of about $1 to Tier 1 pay. And it set up a waiting list system to escape Tier 2. Second-tier workers who have already worked more than four years for Kellogg would be raised to Tier 1 now, and in each future year, three Tier 2 workers would be promoted per 100 workers in each plant workforce.

Most strikers voted no to this deal. Kellogg then threatened to fire and permanently replace workers for continuing the strike. Two weeks later, the company offered a contract that was almost the same as what the strikers had rejected, and the national union leadership accepted and recommended it. This time a majority of members voted yes, and the strike was ended.

The second tentative agreement established exactly the same rules as the previous one for a waiting list to get into Tier 1. It also gave a raise of about $1 to Tier 1 workers and limited COLA for all union members. Whereas the first tentative agreement set Tier 2 wages from about $23 to $28 depending on years in the job, the contract that passed set all Tier 2 workers at about $24 per hour.

Tier 2 workers will earn a few dollars more per hour under this contract than they did under the 2015 contract. And some workers are being let out of Tier 2 after four years or more. But the deal solidifies the two-tier system in two ways. Newer Tier 2 workers will have to wait five to nine years from hire — and in the future possibly longer — to be “promoted” to what used to be the standard pay rates. Until now, the current 30 percent has been the maximum percentage of Tier 2 in the workforce. But the new contract removes this limit. As new hires are placed in Tier 2 and senior workers retire faster than workers are promoted upward, Tier 2 can now grow to 40 percent, 50 percent, or more. Before the vote, the president of the Omaha, Nebraska, local union said this contract could keep the most recently hired workers in Tier 2 for eight to nine years.

Three days before the vote on the second tentative contract, an email from the manager of the Battle Creek, Michigan, factory to supervisors was leaked, saying that the “overall bucket of money (cost) stays the same. Just shifts money from one bucket to another. No gain overall for them.” When this came out, the vote should have been delayed and there should have been open meetings for workers to hear all available information and debate what to do. Instead, national BCTGM officials continued to support the contract and hushed up how it maintains the two-tier system. The Battle Creek manager actually said in his email that he felt the union bureaucracy’s support for the tentative contract helped the company: “We are confident this will pass, most of the union’s negotiating committee is for this and plans to recommend it.”

The national BCTGM leadership has presented the new contract as a major victory, but this is dishonest. After the ratification vote, BCTGM president Anthony Shelton called it “a fair contract … [that] makes gains and does not include any concessions.” The union website claimed that there is now “no permanent two-tier system” because the contract gives second-tier workers “a clear path to regular full-time employment.”

The salaried top leaders, far from the workplace, declared that this contract adequately addresses the two-tier system. But rank-and-file union members weren’t given the opportunity to share their views and concerns. Several leaders of striking locals who remain themselves working union members criticized this contract, but they did not campaign for a strategy different from the one put forward by the national BCTGM bureaucracy. Militant rank-and-file members didn’t have organized groups within the union with which to take action. Contract negotiations were held behind closed doors in Arlington, Virginia, 100 miles from the nearest factory on strike.

Nationalism, Passivity, and Defeat for Unions

After negotiating the second tentative agreement, the BCTGM held a strike rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, and Bernie Sanders came to speak. Sanders praised the strike and denounced the fact that the top 1 percent of the U.S. population owns more wealth than the bottom 92 percent. He called Kellogg’s two-tier system, along with its CEO’s $12 million salary, an example of “corporate greed,” and said it was “insane” that workers had worked 50 days or more in a row of 12-hour-plus shifts.

But Sanders’s message about how to make things better rested on wishful thinking, requests of the capitalists themselves, and ugly nationalism. “You don’t treat people who gave their lives to your company by threatening them with permanent replacements,” he said. “If you love America, you love the workers! And if you love American workers, you don’t ship their jobs to desperate people in Mexico and pay ’em 90 cents an hour!” He said Kellogg should respect its U.S. workers’ sacrifice working around the clock to save the U.S. food supply during the pandemic.

Humanity could produce more than enough food for everyone, with modern technology and planning, without torturous 80-hour workweeks. Capitalism won’t provide that food to everyone who needs it. More food workers could be hired, and working hours could be divided between all available employees with no loss of pay — if the working class controlled the economy and slashed the wealth going to the capitalists, cut waste and inefficiency, and took over farms, factories, transportation, cooking, and childcare.

Using patriotism to push for workers’ rights — in your own nation only — doesn’t work. U.S. unions can continue the disastrous history of supporting inequality in wages between U.S. and Global South workers based on imperialist hoarding of economic resources. U.S. workers can look at Mexican workers earning many times less than us — even when producing the same products for the same companies — and refuse to act in solidarity with them. But turning our backs on working people in poor countries won’t free U.S. workers from exploitation. Kellogg workers in the U.S. are not making an easy living — they are living without weekends, with the two-tier system, doing painfully monotonous work. And Kellogg constantly threatens to fire them.

A strategy of urging U.S. corporations to be less greedy and more patriotic is ultimately disastrous. It says that in the big picture U.S. capitalists and U.S. workers should naturally be on the same side — but U.S. workers and Mexican workers are not the same kind of people with shared interests. If we rely on the type of strategy this suggests, then strikes don’t have to choke companies into surrendering money they’ve taken from workers by stopping production. Public requests by liberal politicians can be used instead. This argument softens class struggle — from our side, but not from the capitalists — and obstructs us from creating alliances with foreign workers.

Sanders does not want it to sound like he looks down on or has a problem with Mexican workers. But treating “desperate” low-wage Mexican workers as nothing but illegitimate competition echoes the U.S. union leader Samuel Gompers, who argued a century ago that Chinese workers should be kept out of the U.S. because they would bring “rice” and cheap labor as opposed to “meat” and “American manhood.” Sanders has said he believes in restricting immigration from poor countries into the U.S. because he believes these people economically threaten U.S. workers. Fundamentally, corporations getting equal work for lower pay in Mexico is another kind of two-tier system. We should fight it too.

If cereal workers in the U.S. and cereal workers in Mexico were both unionized, able to stop production, and connected with an honest and strong alliance across the border, then Kellogg wouldn’t be able to sell Mexican-made cereal in the U.S. during a strike here. An alliance like that would do infinitely more to win livable contracts than statements by Democratic politicians. Fighting international alliances would make management fear the workforce.

How the BCTGM Got Here

Kellogg has pushed its unionized U.S. cereal workers into a corner over decades. In 1970, Kellogg employed 3,455 factory workers in Battle Creek. Today there are only 313 plant workers there. The company blackmailed the union into accepting the two-tier system in the 2015 contract by threatening to close its plant in Memphis, Tennessee, and to fire its workers. Then Kellogg went ahead and fired 290 employees in Battle Creek in 2018–19. Shortly before this strike began, the company announced plans to fire 174 more Battle Creek factory workers in the next two years. Kellogg is continually ripping the ground out from under its union workers.

During the 11-week strike, Kellogg did not stop making and selling cereal. The four factories where workers were striking were operated, perhaps not well, but operated, with white-collar employees and temporary scabs. The strike stopped Kellogg from producing only a small fraction of its output. Kellogg owns about 50 factories around the world, with a total workforce of about 31,000 people. The BCTGM is fighting from only four plants, with 1,400 workers, within this empire.

A large percentage of Kellogg foods are now made by workers outside the United States, including in important plants in Mexico, Canada, and Britain. Inside the U.S., the four cereal plants are unionized, but many snack food factories are nonunionized. To beat a giant corporation like this, current union workers have to help organize other parts of the company. They have to unite with both unorganized U.S. workers and foreign workers — by helping them unionize and win economic gains. That is the only way they can ask for the other Kellogg workers’ help when they strike.

The BCTGM, as currently structured, doesn’t have a strategy to use the potential power of the working class. The Michigan AFL-CIO federation called a rally in Battle Creek in October for people to demonstrate support for the strikers, but only about 200 people came — less than the size of the local striking workforce. It is outrageous that in Michigan, the historic center of U.S. industrial unionism, unions are so weakened that they can’t or won’t really call out fellow workers to help win a strike.

Strikes have to prevent scabs from going in to work and trucks from carrying supplies in and product out. Two weeks into the Kellogg strike, construction trades unions and the BCTGM sent one hundred union skilled construction workers back to work on maintenance and improvements to the Battle Creek plant. The union respected company property and never tried to block scabs or trucks.

Earlier this year, some BCTGM workers in the strike against Nabisco stood on railroad tracks to force a train to stop, then convinced union train conductors not to delivery to a cookie factory. Supporters of the Nabisco strike parked in the road in front of factory gates and had sudden “car trouble” while scabs were trying to exit at a shift change. To win, strikes need to be able to do this on a large scale.

Blue-collar unions also need to win over, and ultimately unionize, a majority of salaried office workers and engineers so they won’t agree to break strikes, as both Kellogg and John Deere used their white-collar employees to do this year.

No, Joe Biden Is Not in Solidarity with Striking Workers

Sanders closed by reading a letter from President Joe Biden, who said that he stood in solidarity with the Kellogg strikers and that he is “aggressively defend[ing]” union rights. This is false advertising. Biden has not used Democratic control of both houses of Congress to pass the PRO Act, which would allow workers to unionize more easily, raise the minimum wage, or pass paid parental leave.

Many Democrats — and several Republicans — said they supported the strike. Six Democratic senators joined Sanders in sending a letter to Kellogg’s CEO urging him to grant workers a fair contract. Vice President Kamala Harris, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and 15 Democratic state legislators made similar statements. They were joined by the Republican governor of Nebraska, Pete Ricketts, and three Republican Nebraska state legislators. None of these politicians attempted to use their government power to practically aid the strike. The only benefit of their statements was to put public relations pressure on Kellogg to make small improvements to its offer. None of these officials took even the minimum action of campaigning for a boycott of Kellogg products.

Critical Responses Hushed Up

Before Sanders spoke, the Battle Creek local union president, Trevor Bidelman, spoke for four minutes about the contract strikers were about to vote on. Revealing that he had learned about its contents only after national BCTGM leaders agreed to it, Bidelman called it “a Trojan horse that’s been given to us that’s gonna allow us to basically harm ourselves down the road,” and predicted it would allow Kellogg to “fill these facilities” with Tier 2 workers. The rally then continued with no further public discussion of the contract.

After the contract was ratified, one worker named Todd Manusos told local media that it was very unpopular among the Battle Creek workers and argued that the strike had been ended “when we [were] winning.” Another worker, Teddy Haywood, said, “I feel the person next to me should make what I make. … I want to see something where you can see the light when you first get here. Six to nine years or something like that, to me there is no light.” The BCTGM did not report the yes and no vote percentages, but only which was the majority.

Marxists believe that workers should have free and open meetings throughout a strike to debate strategy at every turn. We don’t believe contract negotiations should be held in secret from the strikers themselves. Workers should elect delegates from their own ranks to be in the negotiating room. Everything said in negotiations should be open for members to read or see and hear via the internet. And strikers should vote to replace individual negotiators or the whole negotiating team if they no longer have confidence in them. They should control their own strikes, including by electing their own strike leadership in the way they think necessary.

It is untenable to negotiate employment conditions only once every five years. Such limited opportunities to challenge the rules of work trap union members into a cycle of domination and inactivity, which also affects how strikes are fought when they are called.

BCTGM members should remove President Anthony Shelton and members of the contract negotiating committee for intentionally misleading workers about contract terms and preventing member debate of strategy. It is likely that there is not yet a high enough level of opposition to achieve that goal. But workers should discuss the process by which their union came to endorse this deal, which a boss said provided “no gain overall.” Rank-and-file workers should organize their own opposition within the union. This is a very difficult thing to do, but it is necessary. Union officials have demobilized union workers, led strikes without a plan to stop scab production, told workers that lackluster contracts are the best they can get, and relied on company threats of mass firings to get agreements ratified in several recent U.S. strikes, including those by workers at Volvo and John Deere, as well as the Seattle carpenters’ union.

The only strong way to negotiate with a powerful employer is with a strong picket line that can choke a company into surrendering. To achieve that, unionized workers have to join together in union activity with unorganized workers and foreign workers in their industries and fight unhelpful union bureaucracies — in order to build and use unions to fight capital more effectively for our right to a decent life.

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Daniel Nath

Daniel is a political writer, lives in the Midwest, and is forklift certified. He has covered topics including police crimes, borders, and why unions can't be apolitical

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