By Don McIntosh, Associate editor
Nabisco and its principal union have reached a standoff. The union contract covering 2,000 American workers in five states expired Feb. 29, but the two sides haven’t reached a new agreement, and no further contract talks are scheduled. At any time, the workers could strike, or the company could lock them out of their jobs, or just implement its own contract offer and see what the union does about it. As the union’s national president told local officers in a recent conference call, it’s like a game of chess when there are very few pieces left on the board.
Leaders of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM) say it’s no secret why there’s no new agreement: Mondelēz, owner of the Nabisco brand, is proposing to withdraw from the union pension plan and worsen health insurance coverage — despite the fact that the company is profitable. The company is also shutting down some production lines in Chicago and shifting production of Oreos and other snacks to Mexico.
When the two sides last met April 7-8, Mondelēz presented what it called its “Revised Last, Best and Final Offer.” The company is proposing a four-year contract with 2.25 percent annual wage increases and a $5,000 ratification bonus — but it also wants concessions on health and retirement benefits. Mondelēz proposes to replace the current “100 percent” healthcare plan with a “90/10” healthcare plan in which workers would pay a deductible and then 10 percent of all medical costs up to a maximum. Mondelēz also proposes to withdraw from the union’s multi-employer defined benefit pension plan and instead contribute the same amount to a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan. Whereas the former offers a guaranteed monthly benefit, the latter would be a tax-deferred savings plan in which workers would take on all the risk of investments performing poorly.
At Nabisco’s Portland bakery, 100 NE Columbia Boulevard, BCTGM Local 364 President Cameron Taylor says the company’s pension proposal has led 33 workers to retire since March 1 — in a workforce of about 200 — in order to preserve their “Golden 80” rights. Workers whose age plus years of service equal 80 or more are eligible for full pension benefits, but they’d get a smaller benefit if they wait until after the company withdraws from the plan.
Taylor said local managers have been polite lately, and workers have seen no further sign of company plans to bring in strikebreakers, after unfamiliar faces were brought onto the plant floor in February.
Nationally, the union has focused on publicizing its boycott of Nabisco products that are made in Mexico. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump have made an issue of the company’s 2015 decision to shift production to Mexico — and lay off 600 of its 1,200 Chicago workers. Mondelēz told BCTGM it would spend $130 million to install four new production lines in Salinas, Mexico, and close nine of its 16 production lines in Chicago — if Chicago workers didn’t give back $46 million a year in concessions. BCGTM Strategic Campaign Coordinator Ron Baker said he thinks the company intended all along to put the new lines in Salinas. Nabisco has been making some products at a plant in Monterrey, Mexico, since 2003. And in 2014, it opened a $350 million plant in Salinas, Mexico, and closed plants in Philadelphia and Toronto.
On April 6, BCTGM asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate whether Mondelēz’ Mexican workers are represented by a bogus company-dominated union, in violation of the NAFTA labor side agreement.
So far, 251 BCGTM members have been laid off in Chicago, and May 27 is the last day for 43 more. Adding to the insult, Baker says: Those who remain are being required to work overtime. Nabisco hasn’t done any hiring in Chicago since 2014, Baker said, and the workforce there was already down about 150. Meanwhile, a union grievance heading for arbitration accuses the company of violating the contract when it hired more than 50 nonunion temps to do union members’ work in the Chicago plant, at less than half the union wage. Those temps were let go before union members were laid off, but Baker says the company may owe over $1 million in back pay for the union contract violation.
To protest the company’s bargaining stances and to publicize the boycott, BCGTM members have been picketing company-sponsored events, including a NASCAR race in Richmond, Virginia. They’ve also picketed outside the company CEO’s suburban Chicago mansion. Irene Rosenfeld, paid $21 million in 2014, lives in ultra-rich Kenilworth, Illinois, the second-richest neighborhood in America.