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Kellogg’s cereal workers approve contract, ending 11-week strike and averting job losses

About 1,400 union members in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee had been on strike since Oct. 5.

Unionized Kellogg’s workers in four states have approved a new five-year contract, bringing a swift end to one of the longest-running strikes of 2021.

Employees in four states voted to accept a tentative agreement reached last week, according to company and union representatives. The five-year contract includes across-the-board wage increases and cost-of-living adjustments, as well as expanded health care and retirement benefits. It also provides a pathway for newer employees to reach the company’s coveted “legacy” wage and benefit status, partially addressing a concern that many workers had raised about a two-tiered workforce.

Over the course of the 11-week strike, there had been multiple entreaties from policymakers to return to the bargaining table, as well as criticism from President Biden and other prominent lawmakers after Kellogg’s said it would find permanent replacements for the 1,400 cereal plant workers in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee who went on strike Oct. 5. With the ratification vote, union members return to work Monday.

Anthony Shelton, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, lauded the strikers who “courageously stood their ground and sacrificed so much in order to achieve a fair contract.” He emphasized that the deal “does not include any concessions.”

Kellogg’s chief executive, Steve Cahillane, was pleased that the offer — one of at least seven the company cobbled together over the course of negotiations — would bring employees back to work. “We look forward to [employees'] return and continuing to produce our beloved cereal brands for our customers and consumers,” he said in a statement.

The contract leaves in place a “two-tiered” system that gives newer employees with lower wages and slimmer benefits than legacy staff. But the company agreed to create an “accelerated” path from one tier to the next.

Michigan State Rep. Jim Haadsma (D), a labor relations and workers’ compensation lawyer who has lived in Battle Creek since 1994, called the outcome a significant victory for the labor movement.

“This shows the continued evolving muscularity of organized labor,” Haadsma said. “[Kellogg’s workers] held on and got a little bit more than what they were afforded in the contract two or three weeks ago.”

The fact that a union was able to negotiate any concessions at all from a multinational corporation could serve as a powerful signal to other unions, he said, possibly encouraging workers elsewhere to be more assertive. “It will be interesting to see what it does in terms of provoking more employees to think about the benefits that exist by relation of belonging to a union, and what will happen at other unions.”

The union behind the Kellogg’s drive has been a force in several large strikes, including a 19-day walkout at a Kansas Frito-Lay plant that ended in a contract guaranteeing one day off per week, as well as wage increases. It also was involved in a weeks-long walkout at Nabisco that concluded in late September.

Experts say the wave of labor activism playing out across the country this year reflects the added leverage workers wield in a tight labor market, as well as a heightened sense of their contributions to employers’ bottom lines. It also comes at a unique economic moment in which healthy corporate profits, supply chain bottlenecks and a shortage of blue-collar workers has strengthened the hand of organized labor.

Kellogg’s has seen strong demand for its signature breakfast offerings, including Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran and Frosted Flakes, during the coronavirus pandemic. Sales grew 5.6 percent, to $3.6 billion, in the most recent quarter compared with the same period last year, while profits shot up 9.1 percent.

Union members overwhelmingly rejected the first tentative contract, which included a 3 percent raise and a limited pathway for new workers to reach the coveted “legacy” wage status, presented two weeks ago. “It appears the union created unrealistic expectations for our employees,” Kellogg’s said in a Dec. 7 statement.

The company then said it had no choice but to bring in new hires to cover for those on strike, adding that posting for permanent workers would help them find qualified people. “We have an obligation to our customers and consumers to continue to provide the cereals that they know and love,” the company wrote. It is unclear whether the company ever hired any replacement workers, though. Its cereal plants since the start of the strike have been staffed by some salaried employees and temporary workers.

But days later, the White House put out a statement criticizing the company for bringing “threats and intimidation” against its unionized workers. “Permanently replacing striking workers is an existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods,” Biden wrote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also denounced the idea in an interview last week with The Washington Post.

“During the early parts of the pandemic these people were considered to be heroes and heroines, which in fact they are. But now, according to Kellogg’s, they are simply disposable workers,” he said. “To just replace them is extraordinarily ugly.”

A Kellogg’s spokesperson declined to comment on those statements. But last week, company emphasized in a news release that it sought no concessions from workers in either of the tentative contracts put to a vote. It also noted that most of its U.S. cereal plant workers pay nothing for their health care, and that its most senior employees make nearly $36 per hour.

“We value all of our employees. They have enabled Kellogg to provide food to Americans for more than 115 years,” Cahillane said in a statement.

Trevor Bidelman, president of the union’s Battle Creek chapter, said workers had worried they might permanently lose their jobs. But support from high-profile politicians solidified members in their decision to push for a new contract.

In Michigan, where Kellogg’s is headquartered, the state’s attorney general and a handful of Democratic state lawmakers have walked the picket line in support of workers, as did Sanders.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who visited with union members in Lancaster, Pa., in late October, expressed support for workers and urged them to resolve their differences with the company. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) wrote a letter to Cahillane, calling on the company to recognize the contributions its workers have made during the pandemic.

“Despite the challenges of the global pandemic, they showed up day after day to do their jobs so that across the country there was food on the shelves,” the letter said, according to the Associated Press. “These workers helped Kellogg’s increase sales and revenue (and grow net income by over 30%) from 2019 to 2020 — a time when many businesses endured losses due to the financial headwinds of the pandemic.”

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