By Don McIntosh
The nationwide strike at Nabisco by members of the Bakers union ended Sept. 19, and workers returned to the job Sept. 23. Determined to say no to concessions demanded by highly-profitable parent company Mondelēz International, workers began the strike Aug. 10 at the Nabisco bakery in Portland, and it spread within two weeks to bakeries in Chicago and Richmond and distribution centers near Denver and Atlanta. Altogether, about 1,000 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union took part, supported by many other Nabisco union employees who honored picket lines.
By the end the company got the message. Mondelēz dropped its “two-tier” proposal to provide less generous health benefits to future hires, and its proposal to shift workers to an “alternative work schedule” of three or four 12-hour shifts a week. The agreement was reached when BCTGM and Nabisco negotiators met in Baltimore Sept. 13-14. The two sides reached a compromise that preserves workers’ right to time-and-a-half pay after eight hours and on Saturdays (and double time on Sundays) but also lets the company pay some workers straight time for weekend work. Workers ratified the agreement in ballots counted Sept. 18.
The new contract also pays a $5,000 ratification bonus, continues a March 2021 2.25% pay increase, and adds $0.60 an hour raises in years two and three (current pay is about $29.60 for most). And next March the contract doubles the 401(k) match (to 50% of the first 6% of salary an employee contributes.)
BCTGM members said they were striking to preserve what they have, and what they have is remarkable by the standards of most production workers. For example, there’s no premium, deductible or copay for the health insurance that covers workers and their families.
Portland strikers were less ready to compromise
BCTGM mixed together the ballots from all five locations before counting them, but strike leaders in Portland’s Local 364 think the tentative agreement would have been rejected if only Portland had voted. The 200 members at the Portland Nabisco plant had put it all on the line in the name of solidarity, and Local 364 president Jesus Martinez said the compromise on weekend work was what members objected to most. The new contract allows Mondelēz to operate up to four production lines per bakery with crews in which up to half the workers have voluntarily agreed to work fixed weekend schedules of three 12-hour shifts, either Friday-Saturday-Sunday or Saturday-Sunday-Monday, and be paid 40 hours for 36 hours of work. That allows the company to pay close to straight time for weekend work, but only for those workers. The rest of the weekend crews would continue to be paid at overtime rates of about $45 and $60 an hour respectively. Weekend work isn’t very family-friendly, but at least those who work it have felt well-compensated under that fiercely defended union contract clause. Before the strike, many were working lots of overtime and weekends: “12-2” schedules in which they’d work 12 days in a row followed by two days off.
Martinez and others say they doubt existing workers will volunteer for the weekend schedules, meaning the company would have to staff with new hires. But those new hires can’t be forced to stay on the weekend shifts after one year, the contract says. Given those limitations, union leaders say the company may not be able to make much use of the weekend schedule compromise.
Solidarity starts on the picket line
But even those who voted against the agreement count the strike as a success. Bakers say they won their fight to keep what they have—and not give costly concessions to a profitable employer—because of solidarity: their own, their co-workers in other unions, and the broader community.
In Portland, strikers said just two or three Local 364 members crossed the picket line. Nabisco hired temporary replacements, but wasn’t able to operate successfully using scab labor. One reason is the know-how that members took with them when they walked off the job. At the Portland bakery, five production lines turn out Ritz, Premium, and Chicken in a Biskit crackers and Chips Ahoy, plus Oreo cookies that are ground for use in products like McDonald’s Oreo McFlurry. It’s a six-story tower of machines, all of which need skilled maintenance and operation: sifters, mixers, dough dumpers, oven rollers, laminators, conveyor belts, mechanical baggers and cartoners, and many more. Local 364 vice president Mike Burlingham says Mondelēz had been underinvesting in maintaining and upgrading its machines for years, and longtime workers have learned all kinds of hacks to keep them operating smoothly. Though it’s hard for strikers to know exactly what went on while they were out, there were signs it was a fiasco. Product that fails quality standards is collected and sold as animal feed, and Portland strikers observed twice as many truckloads of that waste leaving the plant in the first weeks of the scab operation, even though the plant was operating a fraction of its normal production lines.
Solidarity from non-striking workers played a big role in the strike’s success. In Portland, some truck drivers and train operators refused to make deliveries. And two crucial groups of skilled maintenance workers at Nabisco honored the picket line throughout the strike: nine electricians in IBEW Local 48 and 33 maintenance mechanics in Machinists Local 63. Jeff Obermiller, Machinists Local 63 shop steward at the Portland Nabisco bakery, said his members were pretty sure the company never found qualified people to take care of the bakery equipment during the strike.
“I’m very proud of our members and the solidarity that’s being demonstrated,” Bob Petroff, union rep for the Local 63 members, told the Labor Press. Petroff, who was himself a maintenance mechanic at the Nabisco bakery before joining the union staff, worked behind the scenes to support Local 63 members in their decision to honor picket lines. Members got $80 a week from Local 63, and $150 a week from the international. Under Oregon law, they were also eligible to collect $733 a week in unemployment benefits, because Nabisco locked them out. Petroff said Nabisco contested the machinists’ unemployment claims, saying they had voluntarily chosen not to work. But in fact they were quite literally locked out: Videos taken by the union show that key cards were deactivated and members were unable to enter the bakery to retrieve personal belongings.
Something about the Nabisco workers struggle seemed to galvanize others to support them. A strike support GoFundMe for Local 364 raised over $90,000 by the end, which the union used to double the weekly strike benefits. On the picket line at 100 NE Columbia Boulevard, honks of support from passing vehicles were near continuous, and individuals and union delegations showed up to walk the line and bring donations. One day it was a group of PSU professors in the American Association of University Professors union. Other days it’s Oregon AFSCME or Oregon Nurses Association. On Sept. 14, it was members of the Portland Thorns soccer team, represented by a players’ union.
Lots of elected leaders also made their way to the picket line and to support rallies that were organized every Saturday by the Portland chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and Portland Jobs With Justice. At a Sept. 11 rally, Oregon lawmakers Dacia Grayber, Andrea Valderrama, and Wlnsvey Campos were there, along with Multnomah County chair Deb Kafoury and commissioner Lori Stegmann.
“We have on one side corporate greed, and on the other side we have family wages, economic justice, and people power,” Kafoury told strikers. “Your conviction is spreading across this country.”
A corporate villain
Meanwhile, Nabisco as a brand earned copious bad publicity. For the company to ask workers for concessions—amid record profits and a boom in snack sales—made it seem like a corporate villain. The most egregious demands were for union members to give up premium pay for weekend work, and betray their future co-workers by agreeing to cut health benefits for new hires.
“We don’t eat our young,” said Portland striker Bill Bates, a graveyard-shift mixing department worker with 20 years at Nabisco. “I will not vote yes for anything that sacrifices new people.… You don’t sell them out. You fight for them. People before me fought for me when I wasn’t there.”
For strikers, part of the battle was psychological, seeing replacement workers undermine their effort to preserve their livelihood. And the scabs didn’t just take strikers’ jobs; they wore their clothes too. Strikers said they saw scabs wearing uniforms with their own names on the patches.
Though production in the bakeries slowed substantially, in grocery stores, product mostly continued to be available. In a Sept. 9 conference call, Mondelēz CEO Dirk Van De Put told investors the company planned for a potential strike, and had increased inventories before union contract negotiations started.
Confrontations with security and scabs
In the final weeks of the strike, Nabisco increased the number of scabs at the bakery and attempted to operate 24-7. But in Portland, a determined core of community supporters repeatedly used their bodies and vehicles as blockades to slow and frustrate the arrival and departure of replacement workers, often gathering before dawn.
Toward the end of the strike, security guards and scabs increasingly engaged in physical altercations with those strike supporters, some of them captured on video. On the morning of Sept. 13, a group of strike supporters (operating independent of the union and strikers) tried to block striker replacement workers from entering and leaving the Portland bakery. They were shoved by Huffmaster security guard, at at least one was punched by a scab, and another was tackled and repeatedly struck by a security guard before others intervened. The week before, a picketing striker was struck from behind by a van bringing in scabs, but was unhurt.
Before strikers went back in, company managers held several days of back-to-work meetings in part to discourage potential harassment of the handful of workers who had crossed the picket line. But Burlingham, Local 364’s vice president, says the managers also did something seldom seen: They said they were sorry.
“The strike was completely necessary, in my eyes,” Burlingham said. “It’s what got the company to the table to negotiate for the first time in its nine year existence. That was something that I don’t think they would have done had we not gone on strike.”