‘A long time coming’: Michigan workers join ‘Striketober’ for fairer pay, better hours

By: - October 23, 2021 5:52 am

Kellogg warehouse crew leader Heather Greene pickets outside of the cereal plant in Battle Creek, Oct. 19, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

In the Michigan city emblazoned with their employer’s name — as ubiquitous on city business and school names as it is on cereal shelves — Kellogg workers in Battle Creek are taking a stand.

“Kellogg’s doesn’t know what they created,” says Jim Aikens, 55, a self-described fourth-generation cereal maker, as he gestures toward the lively picket line held by his striking colleagues at the Kellogg plant’s entrance Tuesday.

“This will end sometime. This won’t go on forever. When we do go back in there, you’ll have a united workforce.”

Kellogg is just one of many corporations, both in Michigan and nationwide, now looking down the barrel at large-scale employee walkouts and union strikes.

Many of the labor issues raised by “Striketober” advocates — like pay inequity and unsustainable hours — have been lurching toward a boiling point for years. But the country’s ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a tipping point.

Aikens calls that culmination a “perfect storm” for workers and unions.

“It’s kind of an opportunity. Across the country, you’re seeing that people are just finally saying, ‘Hey, enough’s enough.’ Pardon my language, but the workforce has been treated like shit for a long, long time [and] taken advantage of,” Aikens said.

Kellogg health and safety technician Jim Aikens pickets outside of the Battle Creek cereal plant, Oct. 19, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

In Battle Creek, 325 Kellogg workers belonging to the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union are about to enter their third week on the picket line. The employees began to strike at midnight of Oct. 5 as their master contract with Kellogg expired.

The Kellogg strike has also encompassed plants in Lancaster, Penn., Omaha, Neb., and Memphis, Tenn., where about 1,400 total workers are protesting the company’s policies.

Far beyond Kellogg, the month of “Striketober” is also seeing large-scale strikes across the country at workplaces including Amazon, John Deere and more — totaling roughly 100,000 unionized workers on strike — as the pandemic continues to exacerbate labor issues after a year of demanding work on the front lines. Theaters represented by International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) also narrowly avoided a strike earlier this month.

In Michigan, the part-time instructors’ union at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) are fighting to secure better pay, compensation for required training and protection for paid time off. A local subset of the Michigan Nurses Association also plans to go on strike next month at Lansing’s Sparrow Health System.

‘Out here for the next generation’

Aikens has been a health and safety technician at the Kellogg plant for 10 years. As a legacy worker who has seen job conditions shift for the worse over the last few years, he would like his daughter to make a successful career for herself at Kellogg, too, but not if current issues continue.

One of those top issues: A two-tier pay system which continues to give “legacy” employees like Aikens the pay and benefits they’re used to, but provides a wholly different pay and benefits structure (i.e. lower pay, fewer benefits) for newer “transitional” employees.

This pay inequity can easily churn up resentment between colleagues, Aikens said.

“It creates a hostile working environment, because you have two employees that are doing the same job and working side by side with each other, but one is making substantially less and they’re receiving substantially less of a benefit. … It’s caused a lot of friction and a lot of heartache from employee to employee,” Aikens said.

Another prominent concern for workers is what they characterize as increasingly untenable work schedules. Aikens says that many employees work eight or nine shifts per week, then sometimes find themselves working another consecutive shift with little warning because the company is short-staffed.

“The Kellogg Corporation in the last few years has really put a lot of stress on the workforce because they run so lean,” he said, which has only gotten worse during the pandemic as the company has raced to keep up with heightened product demand.

Kellogg laid off 223 workers in 2018, and announced in September that it plans to cut 212 more jobs in Battle Creek over the next two years.

Such a strained workforce usually means working seven days a week, with just a few days off of work each year. Aikens estimates that many workers are on the schedule for 115 or 120 days in a row without a single day off.

Kellogg’s World Headquarters corporate office, Battle Creek, Oct. 19, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

It also means that what Kellogg calls “voluntary overtime” isn’t so voluntary, when there are multiple holes in the schedule to fill with a finite number of workers.

“We don’t have enough people, and yet at the same time, people are tired, ill, they have family obligations, they have things they need to do,” said Heather Greene, 47, a warehouse crew leader at Kellogg.

Greene is a single mother who says she was able to raise her children with the good pay and good benefits she’s received from her company over the last 15 years. But she was taken aback by the implementation of Kellogg’s two-tier pay system and what it means for her newer coworkers.

“The hourly rate difference [between the tiers] is big, but then so are the health insurance benefits, right down to our paid holidays, the vacation weeks that we have available, no pension. … They couldn’t have made it any worse,” Greene said.

“We are out here for the next generation. They are going to be doing the same work, and they deserve the same pay and benefits as us.”

On the picket line Tuesday, Greene held a sign condemning her employer for “using scabs” while two large buses skirted by to shuttle temporary non-union workers to the Kellogg plant entrance.

She explained that the company leaning on a temporary workforce is not only unsustainable, but also dangerous, given they are working around dangerous machinery that many workers have taken years to become proficient to operate.

Many employers like Kellogg say they are struggling to hire enough workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.9% of the entire American workforce (4.3 million Americans) quit their jobs in August. That is a historic and record-breaking statistic.

At the same time, workers are suffering from burnout and demanding hours while the executives running America’s largest companies have seen record profits during the pandemic. According to the Washington-D.C. based left-leaning think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, CEOs in 2020 were paid 351 times as much as a typical worker — a jump of 18.9% in realized compensation last year, while millions of Americans were left unemployed and many struggled to pay rent.

Kellogg is no different, with the multi-billion-dollar company in August reporting a “strong two-year growth” during 2020 and 2021. 

In response to a request for comment, Kellogg media relations referred the Advance to a video media statement and website where the company posts negotiations updates. In its official media statement, Kellogg calls many of the claims made by striking workers about transitional employees’ pay and benefits and certain aspects of negotiations “misleading” and says the company hopes for a successful negotiation.

“We are disappointed by the union’s decision to strike,” Kellogg’s statement reads. “… We remain committed to achieving a fair and competitive contract that recognizes the important work of our employees and helps ensure the long-term success of our plants and the Company.”

Workers picket outside of the Kellogg cereal plant in Battle Creek, Oct. 19, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

A jolt to the labor market

The cereal worker strike in Battle Creek is just one example of labor unrest unfolding across the country — and many experts say it’s been a long time coming.

“There’s a lot of [job] dissatisfaction that was kind of simmering beneath the surface but has now come to the surface, and we’re seeing more contention,” economist and Michigan State University professor Charles Ballard told the Advance Wednesday.

“COVID provided a shock that catalyzed some of that stuff in ways that might not have happened if it hadn’t been for the pandemic,” Ballard said, although economic trends had been shifting in this way for years before a pandemic ravaged the United States.

That includes historic wage stagnation among Americans, while the executives at their companies amass more wealth than ever before and America’s income inequality gap widens.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought along new and unique variables, Ballard said, making this a true departure from previous periods of labor militancy.

Historically, workers on strike have usually asked for better wages and better benefits for themselves. But strikes like at Kellogg — where “legacy” employees are putting their livelihoods on the line not for themselves, but for the workers who come after them — action like at Netflix, where workers organized a walkout in protest of the “transphobic” new Dave Chappelle special, strike a much different chord.

“That’s a new twist: ‘I’m striking not just for me, but for the other workers who I want to get a better deal’. That’s a little bit of a departure, and I think it tells you that the COVID recession has opened up all sorts of things that people previously hadn’t been thinking about very much,” Ballard said.

For their part, business groups argue that struggles to find workers are hurting their members, another challenge as “the pandemic has been difficult for small businesses,” said Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM) President Brian Calley last month.

Restaurants across Michigan, like this Arby’s in Lansing, have reduced hours in recent months with business groups citing “worker shortages,” Oct. 16, 2021 | Susan J. Demas

A recent survey by SBAM found that most Michigan small businesses cite rising costs and staffing shortages as the top threats they are facing. Of the 665 small businesses surveyed, 64% said it’s harder now to keep their business fully staffed compared to pre-pandemic times.

Another survey conducted by the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association (MRLA) in August reported similar results, with 88% of the 320 hospitality industry respondents saying they are operating with inadequate staffing.

The respondents also point to early closures and limited room inventory as direct consequences of inadequate staffing. Many restaurants across Michigan have shortened their hours in recent months, posting signs that they’re short-staffed.

“Restaurant and hotel operators are trying to meet consumer demand that exceeds 2019 with 100,000 fewer workers and skyrocketing labor and commodity prices. Workers are exhausted and profit margins are thin for many despite the resurgent demand,” said Justin Winslow, MRLA president and CEO.

Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP), says that employers had largely blamed federal unemployment benefits for their worker shortage up until recently.

Those emergency benefits ended Sept. 4. As of last month, Michigan’s unemployment rate is at 4.6%, according to the state; the national jobless rate was 4.8%.

But now that fewer people are receiving unemployment and cases are down, “I don’t think businesses can any longer blame unemployment insurance for the fact that they have a hard time finding workers,” Ruark said Thursday.

“So I think businesses need to look at whether they’re compensating their employees properly, whether they’re providing the time off that they need to take care of themselves and their families, whether they’re providing predictable scheduling.”

Workers picket outside of the Kellogg cereal plant in Battle Creek, Oct. 19, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

Ruark said that the country is experiencing a “worker’s moment” right now where employees have a bit more leverage to demand better labor rights.

In Michigan, he hopes that will culminate in Michigan enacting an expansive paid sick leave law, adequate wages, predictable scheduling and other needed worker protections — although those are unlikely to be implemented by the state’s GOP-controlled state Legislature.

As for the Kellogg workers in Battle Creek, Aikens and Greene say they have no plans to back down anytime soon. And when they do, it will be after they succeed.

“If we’re standing here in the middle of November, I’ll be shocked, because … I can’t see logistically how they could pull it off for three or four month [without us]. Somebody’s going to make a call here and say, ‘Hey, the bottom line is being affected,’” Aikens said.

“We’re gonna stay here one day longer than [the executives] will. We’ve dug our heels in here.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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