American food workers go on Strike to demand better wages

American food workers go on strike to demand better wages

The labor turmoil of the summer in the processed food sector in USA has spilled over into the fall, when workers fed up with the Coronavirus pandemic have continued to strike to demand better wages.

Some 1,400 employees at Kellogg Co.’s grain plants in the United States halted activities this week after noting that negotiations with the company over wages and benefits had stalled. In Kentucky, a strike by 420 Heaven Hill Distillery workers has been going on for four weeks now.

These work stoppages followed strikes in the summer by 600 workers at Frito-Lay facilities in Topeka, Kansas, and 1,000 employees at Nabisco plants in various parts of the United States. In June, Smtihfield Foods narrowly avoided a strike by thousands of workers at a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The number of strikes is unusual. Kellogg notes that this is the first time that its grain processing employees in USA have been on strike since 1972. The previous time Nabisco workers stopped their work was in 1969.

But after 18 difficult months, with many working 12-hour shifts and mandatory overtime to meet demand during the pandemic, employees are in no mood to make concessions.

“We’re painting a streak,” said Rob Long, a production mechanic who has worked for the Kellogg plant in Omaha for 11 years.

Long noted that he and other workers are upset by a two-tier system of employees that gives fewer benefits and pays new ones, creating a gap between staff. Long said the company wants to remove a provision that currently limits lower-tier workers to 30% of staff.

After decades of seeing companies cut wages and benefits, workers in the processed food sector feel they have an unusual advantage due to the pandemic, said Patricia Campos Medina, executive director of the Workers’ Institute at the School of Industrial Relations and Labor at Cornell University.

The labor shortage means that companies cannot easily replace workers in food production, he added. And the pandemic drew attention to the essential and sometimes dangerous nature of their work.

“Workers in general are demanding that companies invest more in the workforce and not only take profits for shareholders,” he added.

Melissa Galbraith
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