Motorists zipping down State Road in Lancaster this week could be forgiven for thinking they’d passed through some kind of time warp back to the 1970s when they got to the Kellogg’s cereal factory and saw several dozen workers walking a picket line, hoisting large signs reading “On Strike” or “Fighting Corporate Greed $$$.”
Actually, many of those eastern Pennsylvania drivers probably weren’t even alive in 1985, which was the last time that unionized workers at this Lancaster facility staged a labor walkout. Today, the facility employs 380 workers who make breakfast staples such as Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies. In the 36 years since then, most large corporations like the Battle Creek, Michigan-based cereal giant have used threats of accelerated layoffs or moving jobs to Mexico in a business-friendly America as a club to prevent strikes.
Times have changed, and rapidly. During the depths of the pandemic in 2020, Kellogg Co. actually posted skyrocketing profits — about $1.2 billion for the year — because consumers stuck at home on lockdown had emptied supermarket shelves. To meet that surge in demand, workers at its factories like the Lancaster facility were leaned on to give up their weekends or to work grueling 12-hour shifts — making extra cash, but losing time with their family and utterly exhausted when they did finally make it home.
Although Kellogg’s stock hit recent highs during the pandemic, boosting its shareholders, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union were stunned when management demanded concessions as the current five-year contract expired. Existing workers would, in their opinion, be nickeled and dimed by givebacks on vacation time or pension contributions while any new hires would be paid substantially less, under a two-tier system. For the first time in more than a generation, workers decided to walk.
“It’s all about corporate greed,” Kerry Williams, the president of Local 374G of the BCTWGM union at the Lancaster plant, told me this week, echoing the most common refrain on the picket line. “They’ve been paying their shareholders and bonuses to their top executives.” But now the men and women on the assembly line want their fair share — just like Kellogg’s CEO, Steven Cahillane, who made $11.6 million in 2020, or the shareholders boosted by a major stock buyback.
If a large, old-fashioned labor strike — nationwide, some 1,400 union members have walked out at four main Kellogg’s cereal plants — feels like a nostalgic oddity, it won’t feel that way for long. Experts say the food-industry icon is on the cutting edge of what they’re calling a “strike wave” that will hit America this fall. The Guardian reported that week that planned work stoppages — from other traditional factories to hospitals, college campuses, and even Hollywood — could number tens of thousands before autumn is done.
On the West Coast, as many as 35,000 nurses or other unionized staffers for the health-care giant Kaiser Permanente are either already on strike or planning walkouts, burned out by the long-running COVID-19 crisis and now insulted by lowball wage increases proposed by the company. In Hollywood, a whopping 60,000 workers are threatening what would be the first major strike against the film industry since World War II, with union members seeking more pay after longer workdays and what they say were unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. The recent roundup by the Guardian pointed to a score of other planned work stoppages, from transit and public works employees to John Deere factory workers to university grad students.
In many ways, a fall strike wave would mark a new chapter in the dramatic change in worker-employee relations that began in tandem with the pandemic lockdowns of spring 2020. Either extended unemployment or the brutal conditions faced by essential workers who did stay on the job has caused millions of Americans to rethink their fundamental relationship with work. Millions have looked to change careers, held out for better opportunities, retired early or gone back to school — creating labor shortages from restaurants to ports and the school bus line.
It was probably inevitable that this new take-this-job-and-shove-it mentality would make its way into those labor unions that have survived the shrinkage of the latter 20th century. The upside-down condition of the job market has fed-up workers more inclined to fight back and call their bosses on their threats (like moving more work to Mexico, as Kellogg has suggested). The fact that so many employers are desperate for help in 2021 has given workers who choose to strike a potential safety net that didn’t exist a generation ago.
“We don’t have weekends, really,” Trevor Bidelman, the local union president at Kellogg’s flagship plant in Battle Creek, told the Guardian. “We just work seven days a week, sometimes 100 to 130 days in a row. For 28 days the machines run then rest three days for cleaning. They don’t even treat us as well as they do their machinery.”
The looming strike wave also shines a light on the broader debate in American politics these days — how best to elevate an American middle class that’s seen a smaller share of the pie since 1980. Almost all of the focus has been on Capitol Hill, where President Biden’s $350-billion-a-year “human infrastructure” plan is the current subject of intense wrangling. But while key components of the Biden plan — expanded child care, free community college — would be a huge boost, the efforts by the nation’s shrunken labor unions to reassert some power are a reminder that government isn’t the only way to save the working class.
Interestingly, America has been here before. In 1946 — after essential workers worked long hours and made sacrifices to get the United States through a different kind of crisis, in World War II — millions of mostly factory workers joined the largest and also one of the most violent strike waves in the nation’s history. Despite GOP lawmakers working to impose some restrictions on union power (in the Taft-Hartley Act, still in force today), the overall impact was history’s greatest rise in middle-class prosperity, lasting from 1946 to 1973 and dubbed the Great Compression by economists because of the decline in income inequality.
Beaten down by the changes in labor relations that accelerated when then-President Ronald Reagan fired striking aircraft controllers in 1981, unions are ready to fight back — but they could, in fact, use a helping hand from Washington. Also nearly forgotten in the spending debate is the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, known as the PRO Act, which passed the House back in March and would help unions counter some of the anti-organizing tactics spearheaded by giant firms such as Amazon. Biden strongly supports the PRO Act and so do almost all Democrats, but the measure is DOA unless Senate Democrats get rid of the filibuster.
In many ways, the Kellogg’s strike show both the past success of the labor movement in America as well as green shoots of hope for its future. Officials with the cereal giant insist their current contract offer is fair because BCTWGM members are already well-paid compared to the average American worker. They are. Current “legacy” union members in fact make an average of $35.26 an hour, with a possibility of more with overtime. That’s a measure of what unions once accomplished — and what they’re fighting to preserve for tomorrow’s workers.
“We’re fighting for the future generation of Kellogg’s workers,” Lancaster’s Williams told me. “We know that we have good paying jobs — that’s why a lot of families have worked here for three or four generations.” For them, progress is back to the future — keeping alive the ideal of building a strong middle class through collective action.
» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter