By Don McIntosh
It’s been a long time coming. Provoked by round after round of demands by Nabisco for concessions, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union reached a breaking point. At noon on Aug. 10, members of Bakers Local 364 walked off the job and began a 24-hour-a-day picket line on the sidewalk outside the Portland Nabisco bakery at 100 NE Columbia Boulevard in Portland.
“They walked out of there with huge smiles on their faces because they’ve been wanting to fight back against this company for a long time,” said Local 364 business agent Cameron Taylor.
Members of Bakers Local 26 at a Nabisco distribution center in Aurora, Colorado, joined the strike Aug. 12. On Aug. 16, the strike spread to Local 358 at the Nabisco bakery in Richmond, Virginia. The flagship Chicago bakery could be next. [UPDATE: Workers at the Chicago bakery joined the strike Aug. 19.]
At the core of the dispute is a shameless demand for worker concessions by a highly profitable company that paid its CEO $18 million last year. Mondelez-Nabisco earned over $1 billion in the second quarter of 2021 on $6.6 billion in sales. But instead of inviting production workers to share the good times, the company is demanding sweeping cuts in pay and benefits. In contract negotiations in Nashville in May and again in Baltimore in July, the company proposed to eliminate premium pay for work on weekends, end bonuses for perfect attendance, and get rid of daily overtime pay after eight hours. It also wants to stop providing supplemental health care for retirees, require workers to start paying part of the health insurance premiums, and increase the use of nonunion temps.
“Last year they made record profits during a pandemic, and now they’re coming for more,” Taylor said. “We had to take a stand. If we didn’t take a stand, there’d be nothing left worth fighting for.”
Over union objections, the company stopped contributing to the pension in 2018 after bargaining halted over the current contract. Now Mondelez-Nabisco is even more profitable, and is demanding further concessions. On the picket line, workers say they got the company’s message loud and clear.
“They couldn’t care less about us,” says Donna Marks, a strong union supporter and 17 year employee at the plant. “They want us to work more, and pay us less.”
Marks is one of 210 strikers at the Portland bakery who are maintaining round-the-clock pickets in four-hour shifts. They get near constant honks of support from passing motorists on busy Columbia Boulevard.
“Our biggest problem is people dancing in the streets right now,” said Taylor, the Local 364 representative. “It’s a safety issue. People are playing music and they’re having a good time out there, but those trucks go by really fast.”
For striker Jake Willits, the strike comes as something of a break. Willits says he and some of his co-workers have been working non-stop for months, sometimes seven days a week and up to 13 hours a day. It’s an exhausting schedule, but at least the union contract makes it lucrative: Saturday work pays time-and-a-half, double time after eight hours, and Sunday work pays double time. Those shift premiums—which are meant to discourage overwork, are among the union rights the company wants to eliminate.
“If we’re sacrificing time with our family, we want to be compensated,” Willits said.
Members of other unions at the Nabisco plant have been honoring the strike picket line, including Operating Engineers Local 701, Teamsters Local 206, and IBEW Local 48. Members of Machinists Lodge 63 who maintain the equipment also left, taking their tools with them when they left the plant.
On Aug. 14, sidewalks filled to overflowing as supporters turned out for a rally spearheaded by retired letter carrier and longtime union activist Jamie Partridge. Organized by the Portland chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and backed by Portland Jobs with Justice and the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, the rally drew support from multiple unions and several elected officials, including Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and labor legislator Dacia Grayber. A staffperson from U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office brought bottled water and a statement of support from the senator.
At first, the company didn’t try to bring in strike replacements, and production stopped cold. The employee parking lot has been empty except for the cars of managers and hired security. With production halted, the familiar smell was gone from the neighborhood, and Nabisco products may start disappearing from store shelves. What will be the first to go? Workers say the Portland plant is the only one to make Nabisco’s Chicken in a Biskit crackers, as well as the Oreo mix that’s used to create McDonald’s Oreo “McFlurry” soft serve ice cream.
But on Aug. 17, a bus load of strike replacement workers arrived at 6 a.m., and at least one production line was restarted.
On week two of the strike, BCTGM strike benefits of $105 a week began. Local 364 president Jesus Martinez said he’s hopeful that if the strike drags on, the tight labor market may help keep strikers going with temporary jobs.
MORE: IMAGES FROM THE PICKET LINE HERE.
UNION SOLIDARITY: THEIR FIGHT IS OUR FIGHT Portland Nabisco strikers welcome visits and appreciate any kind of help. Lots of local union members have been coming by with water or food or just dropping by to offer moral support. You’ll find the picketers there at all hours of the day at 100 NE Columbia Blvd. You can also contribute online to the strike support fund here. The second community rally will take place 10 am to noon Saturday Aug. 21.