Union members and supporters rally in solidarity with striking Kellogg workers at Festival Market Square in Battle Creek, Dec. 17, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins
Updated, 4:59 p.m., 12/21/21 with comments from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office
Unionized Kellogg’s workers from four states, including a cereal plant in Battle Creek, voted to approve a new five-year contract that increases wages and expands health care, ending one of the country’s longest strikes this year, union and company officials announced Tuesday.
About 1,400 members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), including 325 workers in Battle Creek, voted to ratify the new contract after being on strike since Oct. 5. Voting took place over the weekend and into Monday, and workers will now return to their jobs on Monday.
“Our striking members at Kellogg’s ready-to-eat cereal production facilities courageously stood their ground and sacrificed so much in order to achieve a fair contract,” BCTGM International President Anthony Shelton said in a press release. “This agreement makes gains and does not include any concessions.”
In addition to wage increases and an expansion of health care benefits, the new contract includes an increase in pensions, cost of living raises, and a moratorium on closing plants. No plant shutdowns will be allowed through October 2026.
The new contract does not immediately eliminate a two-tier wage structure that has been in place since 2015 — something workers had been fighting for — but it does stipulate there will be no “permanent” two-tier structure, according to BCTGM. The two-tier wage structure has been in place since 2015 and allowed newer employees to earn lower wages and receive worse benefits than veteran workers.
Under the new contract, employees with four or more years of service will graduate to what’s known as “legacy workers,” or those who receive more generous pay and benefits, according to a statement from Kellogg, which is headquartered in Battle Creek. Most of the workers who currently receive the lower pay and lesser benefits would become legacy employees during the course of the contract, Kellogg said.
“We are pleased that we have reached an agreement that brings our cereal employees back to work,” Kellogg Chair and CEO Steve Cahillane said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to their return and continuing to produce our beloved cereal brands for our customers and consumers.”
A spokesman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Bobby Leddy, said in an email that the administration is “glad to see an agreement that ensures people are paid well, treated fairly, and can give their families and kids a great life.”
“Governor Whitmer stands squarely on the side of working Michiganders who bust their butts day in and day out to keep things moving in our state,” Leddy wrote. “Michigan was built by the dedicated, blue-collar working people and union members, and we will continue to be a strong ally in these efforts to put working people first.”
The contract was the seventh offer from Kellogg, and its ratification comes after the cereal giant landed heated criticism from a long list of high-profile elected officials, including President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and numerous Democratic Michigan legislators. Biden had slammed Kellogg after the company had said it would find permanent replacements for the 1,400 striking workers in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Biden had criticized Kellogg for being antagonistic towards organized labor and earlier this month blasted the company for its “existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods.”
In the statement, Biden added that he has “unyielding support” for unions and will “aggressively defend” them.
Kellogg said in its statement issued Tuesday that all of the workers who went on strike “are welcome back to work.”
Throughout the collective bargaining process, labor leaders and elected officials had vehemently criticized Kellogg for its union-busting tactics. Publicly, Kellogg had repeatedly insisted it “made every effort to reach a fair agreement” with its striking employees. However, a leaked email from a Battle Creek Plant manager obtained by the Advance on Friday told a different story.
“In short, [the] overall bucket of money (cost) stays the same. Just shifts money from one bucket to another. No gain overall for them with 3 more weeks of strike and no income. No ratification bonus,” the Friday email from plant manager Gregory Jackson reads.
In a statement provided by Kellogg, Jackson said his “characterization of the deal was taken out of context.”
“But let me be clear, the tentative agreement is more than fair and should be ratified,” Jackson said.
The end of the Kellogg strike is emblematic of a growing national movement around workers’ rights, union leaders and elected officials have said. Fed up with low wages and few benefits, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, workers have been walking off the job and unions have been engaged in intense negotiations this year.
BCTGM, for example, represented Frito-Lay workers who ended a strike this summer with a contract that guaranteed wage increases and one day off per week and Nabisco workers who landed wage increases after a strike that concluded in September.
“From picket line to picket line, Kellogg’s union members stood strong and undeterred in this fight, inspiring generations of workers across the globe who were energized by their tremendous show of bravery as they stood up to fight and never once backed down,” Shelton said in a prepared statement.
Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, tweeted in reference to the Kellogg strike ending that “working people stood their ground, and working people won.”
“The decision to strike is never an easy one,” Shuler wrote. “It takes an incredible amount of courage and tenacity. But strikes work. There is no tool more powerful than our ability to withhold our labor. And there is power in a union.”
In an interview with the Michigan Advance earlier this month, state Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo), who backed Kellogg workers during their strike, said he believes the cereal giant employees’ actions furthers the conversation around workers’ rights.
“I hope this is part of a reawakening of appreciation for people who do hard jobs for us, “McCann said in that interview. “People having a newfound respect for people who make our coffee and our cereal and our fast food is hopefully upon us.”
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