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A Striking Nabisco Worker Explains Why She and 300 Coworkers Are on Strike in Chicago

April Flowers-Lewis

Fed up with what they say are impossible schedules, disrespect, and demands for concessions, Chicago Nabisco workers joined the nationwide strike that already involves Nabisco workers from Portland, Oregon to Richmond, Virginia. We talked to one of them.

Nabisco workers on strike in Chicago, 2021. (Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union website blog)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

When workers at a Nabisco bakery in Portland, Oregon went on strike on August 10, they weren’t on their own for long. Employees at Nabisco in Aurora, Colorado, and Richmond, Virginia walked off the job within days as contract negotiations dragged on between Mondelez International, the company behind Nabisco products, and the workers’ union, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM).

Workers say the company is pushing for concessions that include a two-tier health care plan — with newer workers slotted into a worse deal with higher costs — and a reduction in premium pay. At present, Mondelez pays 1.5 the standard rate for hours worked beyond an eight-hour shift, 1.5 on Saturdays, and double pay on Sundays. If the company gets its way, they’d lose such premium pay, a change workers say could cost some of them $10,000 a year.

On August 19, Nabisco’s Chicago shop joined the strike. The plant on the city’s southwest side was the site of mass layoffs in 2016, when the company presented workers with an ultimatum: concede to a 60 percent cut in wages and benefits or face a huge reduction in the workforce. The workers refused; around five hundred people lost their jobs. Some three hundred fifty workers remain.

At the Chicago shop, scheduling is brutal: workers are regularly “forced over,” assigned a second eight-hour shift following the first one, with eighty-hour weeks a frequent occurrence. Such schedules are increasingly common across the food-production industry as employers turn to mandatory overtime instead of finding new hires. While such an approach means high wage costs (though this is precisely what Mondelez is seeking to get rid of in the new contract), understaffing saves on the benefits to which new hires would be entitled, as well as hiring and training costs.

That conditions have gotten so bad raises questions about BCTGM’s strategy in years prior. Similar questions were present at another BCTGM shop, the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas, where after a strike, workers voted to ratify a contract that, while getting rid of the worst scheduling practices, was well below their desired terms.

For the moment, the Nabisco strike continues to spread: this morning, workers at the Nabisco distribution center outside of Atlanta, Georgia, walked off the job. Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to April Flowers-Lewis, one of the workers on strike in Chicago. Flowers-Lewis is a utility operator who has worked at the plant for twenty-seven years. Her pay is just under $30 an hour — Nabisco remains one of the few living-wage jobs on Chicago’s South Side. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


ANP

What led you and your coworkers to join the strike?

AFL

There wasn’t a second thought when it came to going out on strike because of the way that they work us. Our regular schedule is eight hours. But now we’re working sixteen hours. The reason is that people have retired, and other people are out on sick leave. We have team leads who have left and haven’t been replaced. Without a replacement, who else can fill the position but us, working longer hours?

If you call somebody in, you might get lucky enough to go home in twelve hours, but often you aren’t lucky. On Saturdays, they force us to come in, and then they force us into another shift right after that because people don’t come to work. We’re scared to come to work on Saturdays because we’re going to be forced into another shift.

ANP

So you come in for an eight-hour shift on Saturday, and they tell you to work eight more hours directly after that shift?

AFL

Absolutely, and then we have to double back the next day and come to work that morning. They don’t care about our safety or health. During the pandemic, we were forced into sixteen hours every day — everybody was, every day. Our regular hours are forty a week, but you might end up doing eighty a week. During the pandemic, every day was sixteen hours.

ANP

How many of your coworkers are on strike?

AFL

It’s 99.9 percent. We have all different departments: mixers, the bake floor, packing, and sanitation. Almost everybody is out — we have had around four people try to cross the picket line, but out of three hundred–something people, that’s pretty good. The plant is shut down.

ANP

Scheduling is clearly a problem, and the company is proposing to take away pay premiums for much of your overtime, which people say could cost some workers $10,000. What are the other sticking points in the contract negotiations?

AFL

We want our pension back. When they took our pension back in 2018, whatever we made at that time, that’s what we’re going out with. Number two is: we just want to do our eight hours. We want to be able to leave after our regular shift. Then, we’d like our benefits: we’re not paying for our health care and we’d like to keep it that way. They’re making enough money to cover us. We’d like them to hire new people so we don’t keep getting forced over — it used to be like a family, and you could recommend family members for jobs, but now they pick and choose without listening to us. And we’d like a bonus: we don’t get bonuses even though we work hard as a team. They made so much money last year, and we didn’t get anything for it.

We also ask for respect because they don’t give us respect. Management comes in and doesn’t even speak to us in the morning. We have management that doesn’t take us seriously. We try to help them — with training, with staffing — but they don’t listen.

ANP

You’ve been at Nabisco for twenty-seven years, so you were there through the layoffs in 2015–16. What’s your memory of how that fight ended?

AFL

It was horrible. We didn’t get a chance to fight. They let people go and sent our Oreos to Mexico, which was a bad feeling. On the south side of the plant, we had Double Stuff Oreos and the other was regular Oreos, and then on the north side, we had two more Oreo lines. That was our biggest moneymaker, and it took away some five hundred jobs when we lost those lines. It was hurtful and we’re still suffering from that. We’re a family and they took that from us. As for what we produce now, it’s Nutter Butter, belVita biscuits, Wheat Thins, and Chips Ahoy!

ANP

How has the community responded to the strike?

AFL

We’re supported. The local aldermen have come out to support us and want to speak with us about how it’s going and whether there’s anything we need. We’ve been supporting each other: buying water, getting food. Truck drivers are honking their horns in support. People stop their cars and get out to ask why we’re on strike, which is important because they want to understand — as young people get jobs, they need to know what to fight for and how to be unified.

ANP

Not a lot of people in recent years in the United States have had the experience of being on strike. What’s it been like so far?

AFL

My grandmother has retired from Nabisco. They had a strike that only lasted a day or so in her day. So, it’s not totally unfamiliar. But it’s an amazing experience. I’ve never been on strike before. It’s new to all of us but we’re all out there supporting each other. We have shifts set up so the line stays strong twenty-four hours a day. We don’t leave our shift until the next shift is strong. The location is 7300 S. Kedzie Avenue, and people can come by anytime to support us, and bring water or food. I brought my daughter to the picket line, too, so she can understand the fight herself.

ANP

What does your daughter think?

AFL

She was excited because she also went with me to the union hall to make picket lines. She said, “Ma, you do a lot!” She knows I work a lot and that I work hard for her. She’s in culinary school so she brought homemade chocolate-chip cookies to the picket line. It’s a good experience for her to learn what to fight for when she works as a chef; what to take and what not to take at work.

ANP

Mondelez laid off hundreds of your coworkers a few years ago, and this year, they closed locations in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and Atlanta, Georgia. Are you concerned about the company closing more of its operations?

AFL

They haven’t said that to us but we don’t put anything past them. They get all this money to put into our company but they don’t put it into it. Here’s an example of how backward everything is: in the summertime, it’s hot, but in the cafeteria, they have the heat on. When you go down to HR, they have the air blowing and they’re in jackets because it’s so cold. In the wintertime in the cafeteria, they put the air on. We get sick. When we try to say something to them, they ignore us.

We used to get bonuses — turkeys or ham on the holidays — as a show of appreciation. One of our old plant managers gave us tickets to take our families to the zoo. He gave us a boat ride: we could bring one guest and all three shifts could go on the boat. We’d love things like that. I asked for a health fair but they won’t even give us that.

My husband works for the Chicago Transit Authority, and during the pandemic, they gave him a fanny pack with hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks. I brought it to the company’s safety team, and they did nothing. I wound up bringing some of these supplies from my husband to give to a few of my coworkers. Every time we try to present something to the company, they don’t use it, even though they ask for our suggestions.

ANP

Is there anything else that people should know about the strike?

AFL

I feel that people should fight for what they believe in and be unified when doing so. If you don’t fight, you’ll crumble. They’ll throw you to the wolves. They won’t treat you like a human being if you don’t fight. But we’re all human; we want to go home to our families just like they do. While we’re forced over on the weekends, they’re home with their families. Yet they say, “We care about you and your families.” No, you don’t, not when you’re forcing somebody to work sixteen hours and then double back and do another eight hours the next morning.

We don’t have a problem with working; the problem is that we don’t get to go home. How do you call your husband and say, “Hey, I’m not coming home”? He has to figure out what to do with the kids, and now he can’t go to work. That’s what our lives are like right now. Treat us like humans; treat us like you would want to be treated.