By Ace F. Mx, Brooke Shannon, Bennett Foster, Sam Rodgers, Paul Garner and Schaeffer Mallory
On October 22nd, over 200 workers were locked out of their jobs at the Kellogg’s plant located in Memphis, Tennessee. The majority of the plant’s workers, who are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) Local 252G, report that the lock out stemmed from labor negotiations between the local plant and its unionized workers. During these negotiations, the union workers requested no changes to their current arrangement; however, the Kellogg’s Company attempted to implement a two-tier wage system that reduces wages for future employees by about $6/hr and allows the administration to hire casual employees on an at-will basis. Workers cited a similar deal being made at the Eggo factory owned by Kellogg’s in Rossville, Tennessee, where dozens of senior, full-time employees were laid off and replaced by younger, part-time casual employees.
BCTGM represents Kellogg’s workers at factories in Memphis, Tennessee; Battle Creek, Michigan; Omaha, Nebraska; and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As such, Kellogg’s and BCTGM have developed a master contract with certain overarching stipulations, though locals can create supplemental local contracts. Nevertheless, attempting to introduce the two-tier wage system and more aggressively hire casual workers is not a negotiation that is typically made at a local level.
On behalf of the Memphis Chapter of the Socialist Party USA, the authors of this report visited the lockout site on New Year’s Eve to deliver supplies and solidarity. Union members on-site suggested that the lockout is a strategy to divide workers, both locally and nationally, in preparation for the national labor negotiations with Kellogg’s scheduled for 2015.
According to Andre Matthews, who has worked at the factory for 21 years, “This is a local contract. The master contract isn’t even [due for negotiation] until 2015. They’re trying to break us because when the national comes up, we won’t all be able to go on strike.”
One of the most significant issues that locked-out workers faced was the loss of health insurance. Workers who spoke with Socialist Party members indicated that, prior to the lockout, many co-workers had been receiving treatments for cancer and other chronic illnesses. Now that they have been stripped of their health care benefits, they are paying medical bills out of pocket. “You’re taking our insurance from us, our jobs. The house notes are still coming, car notes are still coming,” Matthews said.
Workers also expressed frustration with their treatment in light of their contributions to the overall success of the company. Most union members who spoke to the Socialist Party had been employed with Kellogg’s for decades and felt this lockout was a clear sign that corporate representatives were not concerned with workers’ well-being.
Kellogg turned the knife by hiring professional scabs who are lodged at the high-rise Hilton in East Memphis.
What is widely misunderstood about this lockout is that the picketing workers are asking for literally nothing. Rather, they are demanding that future employees not be paid less and that their job security not be threatened by casual workers. As Matthews stated “We’re basically doing this for the future. I could have gone back and gotten my same pay back. But the young workers who are working part time making no benefits … it’s for them.”
While BCTGM Local 252G has received enormous support from fellow locals, other unions, and the community, public officials have been all but silent.
The grassroots workers’ rights organization Workers’ Interfaith Network (WIN) has been closely aligned with the locked-out workers, providing meaningful support by mobilizing labor communities in solidarity with those at the Kellogg’s plant, writing letters and calling local officials for support as well as bringing supplies and moral support to the picket line.
“Kellogg’s is trying to put these people on the street. They’re a company that made $14.2 billion last year. They have the audacity to ask us [the CIty of Memphis] for a tax break and [to] pick up the tab for their poverty-wage jobs that they’re trying to replace these workers with” said Kyle Kordsmeier, organizing director at WIN.
The Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) has also had a presence at the picket line. WIN helped organize a prayer vigil in November where members of the SCLC as well as a representative from Congressman Steve
Indeed, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton has been absent.
“The city should have an interest in getting us back to work. But where’s the mayor? Where’s Wharton? He was over there at Electrolux breaking ground. No support from him at all,” Matthews stated.
Workers suggested that Wharton’s absence may be due to his strong relationships with corporate interests in Memphis. The Kellogg’s factory in Memphis participates in tax breaks awarded by local government in the form of PILOT programs or Payment In Lieu of Taxes. Other recipients in Memphis include Electrolux, International Paper, Valero, and Nike. PILOT programs are a form of corporate welfare wherein corporations do not have to pay property taxes, thus depriving Memphis of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-based revenues, if not billions. It is no surprise that Wharton refuses to show solidarity with locked-out workers, as he has demonstrated time and again that his priorities reside elsewhere. Wharton’s disdain for the working-class can be encapsulated in his conversation with Here and Now regarding his plan to cut state pensions:
When it comes to situations like [cutting state pensions], fair is a word that is not in the vocabulary, quite frankly. It’s just a matter of survival. And when it comes down to how’s the city going to survive, the first casualties are values such as fairness (“A Conversation with Mayor A.C. Wharton”).
In reaction to the deplorable actions of the Kellogg’s executives, as well as the silence from our elected officials, the Memphis Socialist Party demands the following:
– that the workers of Kellogg’s Memphis plant be allowed to go back to work immediately with health insurance and benefits reinstated;
– that back pay and other make-whole relief is awarded to all locked-out workers;
– that Kellogg’s cease negotiations of local contracts that conflict with the national master contract;
– that all future employees be paid equally, and that seniority be given priority in decisions regarding overtime and the employment of casual workers;
– that the choice of overtime is given to workers with seniority first; - and finally, that Kellogg’s workers’ voices and perspectives be prioritized in any negotiations of their contract.
We reconnected with Kellogg’s workers at the MLK Day March in Downtown Memphis. At the march, there were not only members of the Memphis local with friends and family present, but members of locals from as far away as Ohio and Michigan. Though BCTGM’s solidarity is as tenacious as ever, their blight remains suspended in limbo as they await the outcome of their unfair labor charge through the National Labour Relations Board. Regardless, the authors of this report will continue to demonstrate support through as many means possible.
The Socialist Party USA cannot tolerate further attacks on Memphis’ already fragile working class and the rights of workers to determine the conditions of the workplace and to maintain a fair, living wage for all.