The strike of 1,400 Kellogg’s workers in the US was a very important struggle. It lasted a total of 77 days and attracted solidarity from across the USA and internationally. The strike on all four of the company’s factories continued even when the employer threatened to fire all strikers. It even forced president Biden to nominally take a stand against the employer’s threats of mass layoffs. Kellogg’s workers had not been on strike for almost half a century.
What was the main demand of the strike?
The strikers were fighting for the signing of a new collective agreement, with a series of demands for wage increases, pension rights, etc.
But their most important demand was to end the two-tier system that divided workers into “legacy” and “transitional” ones.
The previous collective agreement provided that up to 30% of workers would be called “transitional”- i.e being paid considerably less than the others and enjoying far fewer benefits (health, pension rights, etc.).
The company wanted the new collective agreement to remove the 30% threshold in an attempt to “recycle” old workers with new ones, who would now be the majority, dramatically reducing wages and employer costs.
It was, after all, the company’s insistence on abolishing the 30% threshold that led the strikers to reject the first agreement between the employer and the union leadership on December 7, 2021. This agreement provided for increases of 3% per year for the next five years and the possibility for workers with four or more years of service to the company to cease to be considered “transitional”. As Trevor Bidelman, a worker at Kellogg’s main plant in Battle Creek and president of the local branch of the union, stated a few days after the deal was rejected – it represented a “Trojan Horse” – an attempt to get the extension of the two-tier system through, giving some raises on the workers’ pay.
Was it a victory for the workers?
The deal finally approved on December 21st was not substantially better than the one that had been rejected – and above all it retained the removal of the 30% cap. In other words, it was an agreement that achieved increases for the workers and the transfer of some “transitional” workers to the ranks of the “legacy” ones, but it opened the back door for the company to “flood” the factories in the following years exclusively with “transitional” workers with far fewer rights, thus gradually dismantling the union.
The agreement was hailed by the union leadership as a “victory”. In fact, the union president, Anthony Shelton, said that “this agreement makes gains and does not include any concessions”.
On the contentious point of “transitional” workers, the leadership claimed that it had succeeded in “not having a permanent two-tier system”.
This was in reality an evasion. It is certain that the employers will use the abolition of the 30% threshold in the coming years to continue their offensive.
As Gregory Jackson, manager of the Battle Creek Kellogg’s plant, wrote in an e-mail subsequently leaked to the media, the new agreement contained “no gain overall” (compared to the previous one) for workers…
Are workers happy with the deal?
As to how overwhelmingly the workers accepted the deal, there is no real information, as the result of the vote was not released by the union.
There is, however, reports that a large majority of the workers at the main plant in Battle Creek rejected the deal – information that Bidelman himself cannot confirm as the vote counting was done on a single ballot for all four plants.
“…The new agreement leaves too many holes open for manipulation. We didn’t get what we set out to do. We are not happy” Bidelman said.
Even more explicitly, Harry Gibson, a Battle Creek plant worker since 2010 said: “There will never be anything but transitional workers!”. Regarding the raises the union has achieved, he states that “I would trade them in a heartbeat” in return for equal rights for transitional workers.
“To have the fight stop when we’re winning is very disheartening,” Todd Manusos, a worker in the Battle Creek plant, told the local media. “You want to find someone happy about this contract, you (will) have to travel because no one here feels like this is a win” he added.
Teddy Haywood, a co-worker commented: “I feel the person next to me should make what I make. It’s a way to divide and conquer”.
The discussion about developments in the US labor movement and how it could achieve victories is not taking place in a vacuum. In October 2021, tens of thousands of workers in the US participated in strike actions, with the term “Striketober” trending on social media and being referred to in some mainstream media as well. In 2022, nearly 1,600 collective agreements covering more than a million unionized workers in the country expire and this could indicate an increase in strikes and industrial actions over the next period.
Workers at Kellogg’s have shown that they were willing to make great sacrifices to win. The union leadership at the same time showed its limits. It is telling that it did nothing to extend the struggle of its 1,400 members to the rest of the Kellogg’s workers in the US (Kellogg’s employs a total of 31,000 workers in about 50 plants in the US, Britain and Mexico). Moreover, the union leadership made no attempt whatsoever to block the strike-breaking mechanisms created by the employer.
The majority of the workers approved the final agreement out of fatigue from such a long struggle, the fear that the employer would carry out its threats of mass layoffs, but above all because their union leadership offered no alternative on how to take the struggle forward.
Although both the bourgeois media (in the US and internationally) and a number of labor/leftist sites -indicatively in Greece: Rizospastis (the CP’s daily paper) PRIN (New Left Current’s weekly paper) and the left wing trade union faction Radical IT– described the outcome of the strike as “victorious”, it is clear that this is not the case. Despite the heroic effort of the strikers and the massive solidarity of society, “divide and rule” still applies at Kellogg’s. Obviously, it has been an uphill battle, but what we have here is not just a retreat on the part of the union based on an assessment of the balance of forces, but an embellishment of the situation in order to get the workers to agree to a deal that undermines their future and in the long term puts dynamite in the very foundations of the union at Kellogg’s. It has become clear – again through this struggle – that the road to rebuild the trade union movement will not be an easy one and in this process we cannot rely on attempts to whitewash the situation – in the US and internationally.