Workers march along Airways Boulevard on the first day of their strike from the Kellogg’s factory in October. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

More than 50 years after his grandfather was on the frontlines of the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, Paul Houston is himself on strike.

In June, he got a job at the Kellogg’s factory as a machine operator, and was paid $19 an hour. As he waits out the strike, however, he’s working a temporary job at a post office, unloading mail from 18-wheelers. 

The post office job is hard work in uncomfortable conditions, he said, but he needed the money while he’s not being paid by Kellogg’s. He’s got two children – 11- and 18-years-old – to support, and he was beginning to deplete his savings.

“Money was going out, but nothing was coming in, so I had to go and get a job,” Houston said. 

The union representing Kellogg’s workers said last week talks will resume with the company Tuesday, but some employees say they can hold out for as long as necessary, given the favorable labor market, available hardship funds and the belief that solidarity will propel them to a union victory.

“I believe workers feel that when they know they’re right, they can do pretty much anything,” said Kevin Bradshaw, vice president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local Local 252-G.

The union is protesting the company’s two-tiered wage system, in which workers who were hired after 2015, “transitional” workers, are capped at a lower pay rate and fewer benefits than “legacy” workers. The system was introduced as a one-time, cost-cutting measure that the union says the company now wants to make permanent. 

Kellogg’s says 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. The union argues the company is misrepresenting the proposal and says transitional workers will never hit the same pay cap as legacy workers.

“The workers know that the company is viable and wealthy enough to be able to pay everyone the same pay and give everyone the same benefits. And the workers know that this is corporate greed,” Bradshaw said.

The pandemic helped spur demand for Kellogg’s products, the company has said. For the quarter ending April 3 of this year, it generated net sales of $3.58 billion, higher than expected, according to Reuters.

The strike is also markedly different from the 2014 work stoppage, in which Kellogg’s locked only Memphis employees out of the factory for nine months after local negotiations broke down, Bradshaw said. Then, Memphis workers stood alone. But now, the solidarity among the four Kellogg’s locations – in Memphis; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Omaha, Nebraska; and Battle Creek, Michigan – demonstrates a united worker front.

“This feels totally different. This feels right, because we know it’s the right thing to do. We know we (have) solidarity, we know we’re together, we know we’re unified, because they’re trying to do the same thing to everybody now,” Bradshaw said.

Kellogg’s also stopped funding benefits when workers went on strike, Bradshaw said. Local unions have organized GoFundMe campaigns as hardship funds, which any worker can access if they prove they have need. The workers are also being supported by the local, state and national unions. 

Labor activists across the country seem to be capitalizing on a pro-worker sentiment, as unions have authorized strikes at various employers, like John Deere and Kaiser Permanente.

The favorable labor market might also make it easier for workers to withstand the strike, Bradshaw said. 

Getting the job at the post office wasn’t easy, Houston said, because it’s a federal position. But he also knows many employers across the city are hiring, though he said he liked working at Kellogg’s and hopes he can return. 

“It’s probably the best time to strike right now, because everybody’s hiring,” Houston said. He’s paid $18 an hour at the post office, though the job will end in December, and he has no benefits.

Skilled electrician Everett Carpenter hasn’t gotten a second job yet. His wife works as a teacher, and his family has savings, which has kept them afloat while he’s not working. But he said if the strike continues past next week, he’ll likely turn to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union and find a temporary job.

He hopes it doesn’t come to that, though, since in many ways, he’s been enjoying his time off from work. For two years, he’s reported to work seven days a week, which has meant missing time with his family. Over the past few weeks, Carpenter has been able to spend time with his children. 

“I’m involved in stuff that I normally wasn’t involved in, so that’s why I’m not in a rush. Because I never got to do that. I was always here from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I missed all those opportunities. So I get to go pick up my baby from daycare; she’s happy to see Daddy. Stuff I never did. That I never do,” Carpenter said.

“That’s why I’m in no rush. Soaking it all up.”

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