By Don McIntosh
The strike that began Aug. 10 at the Portland Nabisco bakery is turning into a closely watched nationwide struggle against corporate greed. Joining Portland, other members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) shut down Nabisco bakeries in Richmond, Virginia, on Aug. 16 and Chicago on Aug. 19, as well as distribution centers near Denver and Atlanta. All told about 1,000 BCTGM members are on strike.
The strike is to oppose company demands for major economic concessions at a time when Mondelez-Nabisco is in record profit territory. Two demands in particular are galling: Nabisco wants to divide union members by making new hires pay more for health insurance. And after more than a year of extreme overtime and nonstop weekend work, Nabisco proposes to eliminate the hard-won pay premiums that compensate workers when they make those sacrifices. If—as the bumper sticker says—the labor movement is the folks who brought you the weekend, then Mondelez-Nabisco is staking out a position as the folks who want to take the weekend away.
And the fight is getting dirty. At 6 a.m. Aug. 17, Day 8 of the strike, scabs supplied by the strikebreaking specialist Huffmaster started arriving by bus at the Portland plant. So far they’re showing up in relatively small numbers, and strikers think the plant is not producing much, yet.
Then on Aug. 31, the company cut off health insurance benefits for strikers and their families.
The roughly 200 members of BCTGM Local 364 in Portland are now in their fourth week of the strike, and only two are said to have crossed the picket line. On the 24-7 picket line, spirits seem to be holding up so far, and have been buoyed by an extraordinary and unrelenting outpouring of solidarity. The strikers’ struggle has energized the local labor movement and won considerable national attention.
First to support them were fellow Nabisco workers, 33 maintenance mechanics in Machinists Local 63 and nine electricians in IBEW Local 48. They honored the picket line and stayed off the job since day one, along with a handful of stationary engineers in Operating Engineers Local 701. And that’s not all. Teamster truck drivers are refusing to make deliveries or pick up product. And railroad workers have so far declined to make deliveries of raw ingredients.
Meanwhile, Portland DSA and Portland Jobs with Justice have organized spirited strike support rallies every Saturday morning since the week the strike began. The rallies have drawn hundreds of union members and community supporters, including elected leaders like Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal.
At the Aug. 28 rally, over 100 supporters peeled away from union picketers and marched to a nearby Fred Meyer grocery store, which they briefly occupied, chanting “Support the strike! Boycott Nabisco!” to cheers and fist pumps from some shoppers.
Some supporters have even formed a crew of about two dozen to take action beyond support rallies—including surveilling and interfering with the company’s hired strikebreakers. Some scabs are being lodged at Marriott Courtyard Portland North. Others have been gathering early mornings at a parking lot at 7600 NE Killingsworth to board buses chartered from the Blue Star bus company. Starting at 5 a.m. Aug. 20, members of the strike support crew used their cars to block the entrances to that parking lot, delaying the scabs departure by several hours. Police drove by several times but did not intervene.
Later, tipped off by railroad union members about a scheduled train shipment of sugar and flour, the strike supporters also blocked railroad tracks outside the bakery, until the train left without making a delivery. Since then the strikers themselves have maintained a picket down by the tracks.
Then on Aug. 24, members of the strike support crew used their cars to block the exits from the Portland Nabisco bakery. After more than an hour, the scab bus made a run for it across the company’s grass lawn, crashed through the temporary orange fencing the company put up to inconvenience picketers, and drove over the sidewalk onto Colombia Boulevard to hoots from strikers. After midnight, members of the strike support crew warned the Marriott that they’d face a disruption for housing scabs, and awakened guests by setting off car alarms and blasting loud music in the parking lot.
Support has come in lots of other forms. A GoFundMe page to help the Portland strikers had raised over $60,000 as of Aug. 31. On Columbia Boulevard, motorists and truck drivers passing by the picket line produce near-continual honks of support. And actor Danny DeVito and political figures like Bernie Sanders, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have made online statements in support of strikers.
“All of our community coming together for this fight means a lot to us,” said striker Regina Klavano, a 21-year Nabisco employee, at the Aug. 28 rally.
For Mondelez to be asking for concessions at a time of record profit (since April, its stock has been trading at an all-time high) suggests it’s not really trying to reach an agreement, the union says. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating over a dozen unfair labor practice charges filed by BCTGM against Mondelez, mostly accusations that the company is refusing to bargain in good faith, but also for making changes without negotiating, and unlawfully disciplining employees because of their union activities. Mondelez in turn has filed a charge saying the union isn’t bargaining in good faith.
In an official statement, Mondelez said it’s “disappointed” by the decision of the unions to strike. “We have activated our robust business continuity plan and are committed to continuing to supply our delicious snacks to retailers and consumers.”
The statement is a model of dishonest communication, full of misdirection. For example, its list of contract proposals includes “no change to healthcare benefits for current employees,” which is a pretty clumsy way to say they’re proposing to slash benefits for new hires. Mondelez also says it wants to “modernize some contract aspects, which were written several decades ago.” This appears to refer to the premium pay that’s meant to discourage long shifts and weekend work, or compensate workers when they make that sacrifice.
MORE ABOUT THE DISPUTE: David Woods, the lead union negotiator trying to bargain a new contract at Nabisco, spoke with the Labor Press by phone Aug. 26. Read the interview here.