By Don McIntosh
A four-year union battle with the maker of Oreos and Ritz crackers ended April 14 with a new national union contract that contains significant union concessions. The deal came five days after an unofficial walkout at the Portland snack factory—amid mounting absenteeism around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To reach agreement on the new union contract, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union appears to have given up for now trying to keep Mondelēz in the union-sponsored pension, which was the biggest sticking point since contract bargaining began in February 2016. Mondelēz—created in 2012 as an independent spinoff of Kraft-Nabisco’s global snack division—said it was pulling out because the pension is projected to run out of money by 2030. Over union objections, Mondelēz halted contributions to the pension on May 23, 2018, and instead started contributing 26 cents to $4.73 per hour to a 401(k)-style retirement savings plan, with older workers getting the larger contributions. Mondelēz also retroactively raised wages 2.25% per year.
For most of the last four years, the two sides have been in a strange kind of limbo: Almost no negotiations took place, and the union continued to represent workers under the terms of an expired union contract, but workers never struck, and the company never locked them out.
But by late March 2020, Mondelēz was having trouble keeping workers in the bakeries, even after upping pay with a temporary $2 an hour “COVID-19 Appreciation Bonus.” Just outside New York City, the Mondelēz bakery in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, reportedly had nearly 200 workers stay home.
As part of the contract settlement, a temporary side agreement addresses employee absenteeism during the COVID-19 crisis: It allows Mondelēz to bring in nonunion workers employed through a temp agency until the end of July, at a wage of at least $19.50 an hour, roughly the union starting rate, though without the union benefits. After that, the company can offer the temps permanent positions, and the usual probationary period would be waived. Union members would still get opportunities to work overtime before temps could be assigned the work. The side agreement ratifies what Mondelēz had begun to do anyway — bring in temps to replace union members who stayed home because of the pandemic.
At the Portland plant, Mondelēz had begun advertising on Craigslist and bringing in nonunion temp workers. Union members responded with an unofficial strike. On April 3, graveyard shift workers started leaving early, and a majority of day and swing shift workers stayed off the job, shutting down all five snack production lines. The next two days, enough workers stayed home that only one line was able to restart.
When the nationwide deal was presented the following week, only two of the 210 members of BCTGM Local 364 at the Portland bakery voted to approve the agreement. But it took effect anyway after passing narrowly at the other locals. Normally, the union would have a meeting to go over the agreement line by line, but that wasn’t possible during the pandemic. The vote took place in the workplace on April 13, and local and national results were announced April 14, with the agreement passing by several hundred votes.
The new agreement runs through February 28, 2021, and covers about 2,000 members of six BCTGM locals at Mondelēz-Nabisco bakeries in Portland, Oregon; Fair Lawn, New Jersey; Richmond, Virginia; Chicago, Illinois; and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as distribution centers near Chicago and Atlanta and in Norcross, Colorado. It’s basically an extension of the contract that expired Feb. 29, 2016, except that it no longer obligates the company to participate in the union pension. Employees will receive a 2.25% wage increase retroactive to March 1, 2020, bringing the typical wage up to $28.76 an hour. They also get a $1,000 ratification bonus. [In 2016 and 2018, the company had offered ratification bonuses of $5,000 and $15,000, but the union didn’t submit those offers to members for a vote.] The new agreement also outlines a process for settling all remaining grievances and unfair labor practice charges: The two sides commit to good faith efforts to settle them within 60 days.
“We can’t figure out why the other bakeries would vote for this,” said Eddie Mayagoitia, a shop steward at the Portland bakery.
“This is a temporary agreement,” said Local 364 business representative Cameron Taylor. “This is definitely not labor peace.”
Now, the Portland workers are supposed to train the temps to do their jobs, but it’s unclear how that can happen in a noisy environment with workers wearing face coverings and trying to maintain 6’ of distance.
“The members are so angry about this,” Taylor said. “The company is training a work force to take our jobs should we decide to strike in March of next year.”
The new agreement also came after longtime BCTGM international president David Durkee died March 30 at age 66 following a long battle with cancer. On April 16, the union’s General Executive Board unanimously elected Anthony Shelton to serve the remainder of his term.
The national union did not respond to an email to its spokesperson. By text, an organizer for the national union said the BCTGM International Union doesn’t have a comment at this time.
Despite the agreement, the union’s boycott of Mexican-made Nabisco products continues. BCTGM called the boycott in March 2016 after Mondelēz installed four new production lines at its Salinas, Mexico, bakery, and shut nine of its 16 production lines in Chicago, laying off hundreds of BCTGM members there. The boycott is endorsed by the national AFL-CIO. American consumers are asked to check the label and not buy any Mondelēz-Nabisco products that say “made in Mexico.”