At the entrance to the nearly empty parking lot for Memphis’ Kellogg’s factory, two large signs are plunged in the mulch, the top half of a cartoon tiger’s menacing smirk challenging visitors.
“Kellogg’s strong,” read the bold, all-caps text above the familiar face of Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger. “Memphis essential workers helping feed the nation.”
For months during the pandemic, Memphis essential workers reported to work at the Kellogg’s factory, helping produce and distribute cereal like Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Cocoa Krispies and Frosted Flakes. But today, employees picket outside the warehouse on their third week of a national Kellogg’s strike.
Many like their jobs, their coworkers and even their supervisors, striking workers told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. But they feel employees, whom some referred to as being like family, have been betrayed by their employer, especially since they consistently reported to work throughout the pandemic.
Kellogg’s workers, who’ve been on strike nationally since Oct. 5, say they’re protesting the company’s proposal to make permanent a two-tiered wage and benefits system. Though the “legacy” workers won’t have much to gain by fighting for the end to the two-tiered system, they – as well as lower-paid “transitional” workers – say the fight is about equality and the rights of future employees.
Current legacy workers were hired before 2015, and transitional workers were hired after, said Rob Eafen, president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 252-G. About 70% of the factory’s employees are legacy and 30% are transitional, he said.
The two-tiered system at Kellogg’s was proposed by the company and agreed to by the union as a one-time cost-cutting concession in 2015. Transitional workers make $19 an hour (not including cost of living adjustments and shift differential) and contribute to their health care, Eafen said. Legacy workers are capped at $34 an hour and have their health insurance fully covered. The company says that under its proposal, after six years of service, transitional workers and new hires will hit the same pay rate as legacy workers, but the difference in their benefits packages won’t change. They’ll also never get a pension, which legacy workers have.
That’s not how Eafen understands the offer, however. Eafen is also a union negotiator, and he described their proposal as intentionally confusing, and one under which the transitional employees will never hit the same pay as legacy workers.
Some workers have said they’re not opposed to a system whereby more junior workers are started at a lower pay rate than those who’ve held the same job for years.
But the divide means employees who perform the same duties might have vastly different pay and benefits. Michael and Regina Plasky work the same job at the factory, but Regina, who’s worked there for just under five years and was hired under the newer contract, makes $13 an hour less than her husband, who’s been employed for 15 years.
For the past few weeks, neither of them have worked their usual hours – the first shift – at the factory, putting cereal in bags and bags in boxes. Instead, they’ve held picket signs with other strikers along Airways Boulevard, demanding their employer commit to equal pay and benefits for workers.
As passing cars, trucks and even a school bus honked their support for the strikers on a warm Tuesday afternoon, Michael Plasky, 56, explained his frustration that the corporation was financially successful last year while trying to lowball employees. And he and Regina Plasky both said making permanent the two-tiered system is unfair to future hires.
“We’re doing the exact same job,” Regina Plasky, 54, said. “Matter of fact, he trained me.”
Still, Michael Plasky gets 100% of his benefits paid for by the company, they said, and Regina Plasky doesn’t, so she’s on her husband’s insurance. Neither of them wants future workers to be hired under the proposed system.
“I appreciate the fact that those who are making more are actually fighting for us transitional (workers). They could have just decided to go, ‘Hey, we’re getting ours. Don’t worry about them.’ But they’re doing it for the future,” Regina Plasky said.
The strike comes eight years after Memphis employees were locked out for nine months after union negotiations broke down. In July 2014, a judge ruled the lockout was illegal and ordered the factory to open its doors.
Today, about 275 employees work at the factory, said Eafen.
Kellogg’s CEO Steven Cahillane made nearly $12 million in the last fiscal year, including salary, stocks and other compensation, according to the AFL-CIO. Kellogg’s did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and instead referred to an online video release and website where the company posts negotiations updates.
In the video, a spokeswoman says the company is not asking employees to take a pay cut or give up vacation pay (a claim the union doesn’t appear to be making). She also said, “Most (employees) also have unparalleled, no-cost, comprehensive health insurance, meaning they pay nothing for their health care. … Less senior employees have the same health insurance plan that all our salaried employees have, except they pay much lower employee contributions than the rest of us, a construct that was agreed upon with the union in 2015.”
Strikers also object to what they say is required mandatory overtime. Twenty-year packing department employee Vincent Mickens, 61, has missed too much time with his family, he said, because he’s worked seven days a week since he was hired, only off for a few weeks of vacation time.
Kellogg’s has said that while employees worked an average of 52-56 hours a week in 2020, “90% of the time, employees volunteered for the extra hours.” They also raised the point that the median pay for an hourly worker was $120,000 a year, “and more than one-third earned between $120,000 and $200,000.”
Mickens argued that the overtime is mandatory, and often sprung on employees with little notice. Regardless, the money doesn’t make up for the lost time, Mickens said.
Employees have lives – like church functions or birthday parties – outside of work. With forced overtime, “now you’ve gotta call home and say ‘I’m sorry guys, I can’t come,’” he said.
“Right now, we’re trading money for time. And time you can never get back.”
Still, Mickens says he loves his job. His goal was to retire at 63, but those plans might change depending on how long the strike lasts.
Every three days, he joins the picket line.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.