‘It Feels Like We Started a Movement’: Despite Mixed Results in Frito-Lay Strike, Workers Proud They Stood Up
Frito-Lay workers won one guaranteed day off per week and put an end to forced “suicide” shifts after a 20-day strike this summer at their plant in Topeka, Kansas. Many were frustrated that the union didn’t hold out longer and win more—but are proud of the role that their fight played in launching the ongoing strike wave.
Members of Bakery Workers (BCTGM) Local 218 voted 200-178 on July 23 to accept the company’s latest offer and end their walkout, which drew national attention to the abuse of mandatory overtime. Workers accused the company of forcing them to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, for weeks on end.
“I’m disappointed—I was hoping to get a little bit farther, especially with wages,” said Cheri Renfro, an operator in the plant’s Geographic Enterprise Solutions department, where workers process orders from smaller gas stations and convenience stores. Wage rates have languished for a decade as the company has foisted small lump-sum bonuses instead of raises on most classifications.
The new contract provides the same 4 percent wage increases over two years that workers rejected in the pre-strike offer—although now they will receive a 3 percent increase in the first year (retroactive to last September) and 1 percent the second year, instead of 2 percent each year.
Frito-Lay, which earned $5.3 billion in operating profit on $18.2 billion in revenue last year and was responsible for half of parent company PepsiCo’s profits, had threatened to take retro pay off the table if workers voted down the deal.
ONE DAY OFF PER WEEK
The agreement guarantees one day off per week. That’s a relief, said Chantel Mendenhall, a crewing coordinator in the plant, since previously “they didn’t even have time to mow their lawns or do their laundry because they were always at work.” Mendenhall is one of the workers responsible for scheduling shifts, so she has an inside view of the company's abuse of forced overtime.
But that day off comes with a lot of fine print: Frito-Lay can still force workers in on their guaranteed day off if they have previously taken sick time, holidays, FMLA, or unpaid funeral leave that week. “If you have to make a doctor’s appointment, or you want to go see your kid play softball and you refuse overtime one day, you can [still] be forced seven days,” said Renfro.
The contract eliminates a proposed 60-hour-a-week cap on how long workers could be forced to work. Some union members were concerned higher-seniority workers would be forced to work weekends after lower-seniority workers hit the limit. But others contended that this new contract will not prevent the company from imposing 72-hour weeks.
The agreement ends the hated “suicide shifts”—where workers had to stay an extra four hours after their normal eight, and then come in four hours early before their next shift, leaving just eight hours off. “It’s a step in the right direction,” said Mendenhall. “For 40 years they have had suicide shifts and nobody has done a darn thing about it.”
Renfro is still concerned about safety hazards, including blocked exits and a cavalier attitude toward fire alarms going off. “People shouldn’t have to risk their lives to make snack food,” she said.
One other provision in the agreement gives Frito-Lay the right to re-bid jobs in the facility, excluding maintenance, allowing the company to make new schedules once during the term of the contract. Bids will be awarded by seniority. The company claims this will help reduce the excessive overtime, but Renfro is skeptical: “You need to raise up the wages and get people in there, and then the overtime will lessen,” she said.
‘A LEARNING EXPERIENCE’
Of the plant’s 850 workers, about 550 are union members. In a right-to-work state like Kansas (or “right to work you to death,” as Renfro calls it), workers can opt out of joining the union.
In the run-up to the strike, “a lot of people who hadn’t been in the union joined because they saw we were getting stronger and more united,” said Mendenhall. Workers were emboldened by the tight labor market. Mendenhall said one co-worker was insistently spreading the message: “Look, we’ve got Covid, everybody can go and get a second job. You can’t walk 10 feet without seeing 20 hiring signs. This is the one and only chance we might have! And they can’t hire people, they can’t get anybody to come in the door, there’s no way they can replace us!”
But the number of non-union workers weakened the union and allowed the company to keep the plant running—at least to some degree—during the strike. Still, strikers questioned how much production was actually happening and stores in the area reported shortages of certain products.
As time went on, though, more workers threatened to cross the picket line, including some of the higher-paid maintenance workers. Fear of going without health insurance was a big issue.
“The reason so many people voted for the contract,” said Mendenhall, “wasn’t because anybody liked it, it’s just that there was such a scare because as soon as we walked off Frito-Lay immediately cut off our insurance.”
The American Rescue Plan Act passed earlier this year included a provision to pay striking workers’ health insurance premiums (through September 30), but the union struggled to get clear on the policy and communicate the information to members. The company, meanwhile, sowed doubt by posting notices in the plant ahead of the strike with the expensive COBRA payments workers would have to make.
“Our union does not strike very often, so it was a learning experience for us,” said Renfro. “Going forward, there’s a lot of things we can plan better,” she said. That includes getting more information out about maintaining insurance while on strike and holding more meetings with updates on negotiations and strike pay.
Topeka is one of just a handful of union plants among Frito-Lay’s 30 U.S. manufacturing facilities. Vancouver, Washington, is another; the union there, BCTGM Local 364, struck at Nabisco in August and September.
‘MADE US FEEL LIKE WE ARE HUMAN’
The Topeka strikers were buoyed by an outpouring of community and union support. The Topeka Frito-Lay Union Members Appreciation Page on Facebook, which Mendenhall set up, featured a steady stream of photos of donations of bottled water, pizza, and donuts and members of other unions visiting the picket line; it's become a model for other striking unions to thank supporters. A local magazine, 785, set up a fund to help strikers pay their water bills. Restaurants pledged not to serve Frito-Lay chips.
“All the support made us feel like we are human and we do deserve to be treated fairly,” said Renfro. “That’s something Frito-Lay is not capable of doing.”
The new contract expires in September 2022. “We’ll see how the next year or two plays out. That’ll tell me whether Frito-Lay really got their eyes opened,” said Renfro.
After the mixed results of the strike, though, some committed union activists have left for other jobs, including the union president, who is now a Steelworker at a Goodyear tire plant.
Despite her disappointment, “people are definitely proud that they stood up,” said Renfro. “I don’t regret it one bit.”
“It feels like we started a movement,” said Mendenhall, a Local 218 trustee. The Frito-Lay strike has been followed by high-profile walkouts by BCTGM members at Nabisco and now Kellogg’s, a big strike by thousands of Seattle Carpenters, and the ongoing strike by 10,000 John Deere workers.
“From running the [Facebook] page, I have lots of people message me and say, ‘Hey we’re all watching you, you’re an inspiration and you guys are so brave,' said Mendenhall. "We weren’t trying to be brave—we were just trying to get what we deserve.
“It was unbelievable how many unions showed up to support us," she said. "A lot of us that saw that now have an idea of how it could be if unions stuck together like that. Never once have I considered going and standing on somebody else’s strike line or bringing them food and water. Now I’m like, ‘Oh, this is what we do for each other! I get it now!’”