We ride for the South. Don't you?
As the sun rose in Memphis on October 18, Rodigah Blaylock stood in the brisk air outside the Kellogg plant with her fellow union members, waving signs that read "We Stand Strong" and "Equality For All." Some drivers passing by blew their horns in support. Blaylock and other members of the Local 252-G union have been on this picket line since October 5, when members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) launched a national strike at factories that produce Kellogg's cereals. The company-wide strike also spans factories in Omaha, Nebraska; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Battle Creek, Michigan.
As a result of the strike, the Kellogg Company has resumed contract negotiations this week.
BCTGM's previous contract with Kellogg expired in 2020, just as the industry was experiencing a boom. Negotiations continued as pandemic lockdowns increased demand for cereal products, resulting in a year-long extension of the contract. In turn, workers had to work 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week, without holiday or vacation time, to produce products such as Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes, and Froot Loops. The company's cereal sales grew more than 8 percent in North Carolina in 2020, and the company reported a profit of $1.25 billion by the end of last year. The CEO of Kellogg, Steven Cahillane, received around $11.6 million in total compensation in 2020.
"It's a hard and emotional feeling for the strike going on right now, but I feel very strongly about it," Blaylock said. "I would do it again."
The workers on strike, who were once deemed essential, are being replaced by an untrained, nonunion workforce as Kellogg attempts to restart production with temporary workers. Kellogg Company has posted ads on the job site Lensa under the heading "Temporary General Laborer job," enticing an unskilled labor pool to cross the picket line with the reward of a "limited time project bonus."
Union members' demands include a contract that does away with the company's two-tier wage system, a concession made during contract negotiations in 2015 when company profits were down. That arrangement turned 30 percent of the workforce into "transitional" workers, who earned $12 less in hourly wages, lost retirement benefits, and incurred higher healthcare premiums than their union-protected "legacy" counterparts.
Blaylock is one of the workers who got "rolled over" from transitional to legacy—"by the grace of God," she said. Throughout the strike, legacy employees have been mentoring transitional workers on the importance of worker solidarity, as Kellogg has tried to pit workers against one another.
Dorothy Wilkins, a retired legacy employee at the Kellogg factory in Memphis also came out that brisk morning to show solidarity. "I'm out to support the workers because I worked at Kellogg for 40 years, and everyone should be able to retire with pension and insurance benefits," she said.
This strike has proven that workers are fed up with companies that are more concerned with profit than their employees' well-being.
The South is home to some of the states with the lowest rates of union density in the country, where workers earn lower wages and have fewer rights at work than workers elsewhere in the country. The working class standing up and fighting back in Memphis is a part of a wave of strikes happening across the country, including John Deere, more than 700 nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts, as well as coal miners in Alabama.
"We're not fighting for more money," Blaylock said. "We're fighting for the people that're coming in after us, some of the people that we're working beside every day."
Ten members of the Local 252-G union at the Kellogg plant in Memphis talked to Scalawag from the picket line about how it feels to stand up for the future of workers and fight back against a corporate giant, and why they believe they will win.
"This will be my first time ever going on a strike. It's a good and a bad feeling. Because you're standing up for what you believe in, for your future. My future kids, my kids coming up, they're gonna see how strong of a woman and a mom that I am, that I stood up and I did these things, for the sacrifice for them. […] We're all nervous. Because this is our very, very, very first time, for a lot of us. But as the day goes by, we get sometimes emotional and scared, but you want to put your trust in God. […] I understand the struggle, the heartache, and looking at your other sister and brother making this amount of money, but you're making this amount of money, but we're all in here doing the same job. We're all getting forced the same amount of hours. But as I tell people, you always hold down and keep fighting for what you want. I never gave up."
"We sacrifice so much. We sacrifice our time. Some of my brothers have died from this pandemic, and the companies just have no sympathy for the ones who want to stand up and do the right thing and come to work every day. And when it comes down to it is just about selfishness of the company and selfishness of the other people that they hire. Things are so different these days for the labor movement around the country. I mean, we've got to stand. We've got to stand. And if we don't stand now, 10 or 15 years from now when I'm dead and gone, labor won't have no movement, and we will be really working for nothing. Corporate greed is just gonna get greedier and greedier and greedier."
"I'm proud of the stance we're taking. We've got to. Because of the people before us, we've got good benefits, we make good money, we got a decent retirement—and the people that came before us worked. You can't be the generation or the legacy of the employees that decides, 'You know what we're just gonna cave and just give them everything they want,' you know? We can't. We've got to fight; those people were doing it for us. We've got to fight for the future to keep these jobs. [We might be fine] with what we got, but we're looking out for the future. Because they want to set this two-tier system, pay these people less, make them pay for their own benefits, their own health care. We've got to take a stance, and I'm proud to be part of it. It's going all over the country, the way it should be."
"It's overwhelming. But I feel like that is necessary. I feel like individuals have to stand strong together, in unity in order for corporations to understand that we mean business. And it's heartfelt. It's for our family. […] If we don't stand now, and if we don't stand together, we'll never have anything. We'll lose everything. It's power in numbers. And I think it speaks volumes—not just with Kellogg's, but with other corporations also standing firm—it just sends the message that we're tired. You know? What we have, we need to keep. And these transitional employees deserve the same amount of respect. Give them what they should have."
"We just need to continue to stand strong one day longer than companies are willing to do, and prevent them from outsourcing our jobs to other countries. You need to just continue to stand solid and use solidarity as our base. And I feel proud of being on the picket line supporting the future employees of America."
"I'm happy to see that American people are still strong, they're still willing to take risks for the right reasons. To strike is a very unsure thing. I'm glad that they are all striking and I hope that the rest of America follows suit and stands up to corporate injustice."
"It feels great to stand up for something that you know that is right in your heart, in your mind, and to make the corporate monster realize that monsters can be slain sometimes. It's a David and Goliath kind of type of thing, but if we all stand together in unity as one, we can get a lot accomplished. So I feel good. I'm here to the end."
Patrece Edwards Bradford
"In 2013, during the lockout, [my young daughter] was a part of that, when we marched on Battle Creek for fair and equal pay. And here we are, eight years later, doing the same thing. And this shows that no matter what, no matter how hard you work, or how much I was away from home, here trying to get her a better living, that this company, and most companies across America, they don't care. It's just greed. Corporate greed. No matter what you sacrifice, the sacrifices I've made for her and for this company, they don't care. […] It's just sad that it's all across America, sad that you have families that give up everything. We have people die because they were essential workers and they were out here working, caught COVID and die, and they don't care. They still don't care. So I'm happy to be a part of it. I'm glad that the majority of us are healthy and able to be out here and stand strong. But it's just sad, it's really sad."
"First and foremost, I'd like to say that I'm proud to stand up for the future employees, because the people that came before me have stood up and fought for what I have now. And I feel that it is my job to do the same for the people in the future: My sons, my sons' sons, and all their other children. And besides, it's the right thing to do, to go against corporate greed."
"It's giving me a sense of empowerment. It's making me feel like I'm making a difference—not only for myself, but for the people coming behind me. In addition to that, it's allowing me to really realize with the company how they feel about me, and how they care about me—which they actually don't, because we wouldn't be out here, first of all. In addition to that, hopefully people that are coming behind me, they will do the same for the others that's coming behind them."