Frito-Lay production never slowed production during the pandemic. Mark Benaka, business manager for Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM) Local 218 and a Frito-Lay retiree after 37 years, commented: “I’ve learned that when something’s hitting Americans beneath the belt, the two main items that never suffer are snack foods and alcohol.” (labornotes.org, July 2021)
Exhausted by working seven days a week, 600 workers walked out on strike July 5 at the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kan. The Bakery Workers hit the picket line to demand an end to abusive working conditions endured since before the pandemic.
When lousy working conditions at the Topeka plant made it nearly impossible to attract or retain new workers, management dealt with low staffing by instituting grueling overtime shifts. These include 12-hour shifts with only eight hours off between clock-out and clock-in, aptly nicknamed “suicide shifts,” as they wreak havoc on workers’ physical and emotional health and can cause serious injury.
The meager monetary compensation for employees contrasts with the billion-dollar profits Frito-Lay announced for the first quarter of 2021. Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of the Pepsi Corporation, reaps huge profits from sales of snack products like Fritos, Doritos and Lays Potato Chips.
Intimidation tactics have been Frito-Lay’s response to the strikers so far. Buses supposedly transporting strikebreakers roll past to give the impression that workers are easily replaced. However, eyewitnesses say the buses are almost empty. Though shipments appear to be leaving the plant, smokestacks are idle and the telltale odor from the plant is absent.
These indicators that business is far from usual are great for the strikers’ morale. They have community support too. Some local restaurants are refusing to purchase or serve Frito-Lay or Pepsi products. A social media campaign is calling for a wider boycott in support of the striking workers.
Alcohol industry organizing
Production workers at Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland have taken the first step to organize by signing union authorization cards with the United Steelworkers.
The company could voluntarily recognize the effort and preclude the need for an election under the National Relations Labor Board. Great Lakes Brewery, founded in 1986, touts a philosophy of “fostering relationships” and “sharing success” on its website.
Union organizers say that benefits at the brewery are indeed better than average, while working conditions promote a higher employee retention rate.
The Great Lakes Organizing Committee at the plant wants to keep the pluses — and improve on them.
A union will put workers on a more level playing field with management and With unionization, the bottlers, delivery drivers and plant maintenance, who are all part of the productive forces’ essential labor power, would be better able to fight for higher wages and win conditions that benefit their lives as workers. A contract would guarantee in writing what workers have come to expect – but which could be taken away – from the oldest and largest craft brewery in Ohio.
So far, Great Lakes Brewery management has not responded to the union drive. It remains to be seen if the demand for a union will result in the owners turning over to workers any more of the value they create.