Frito-Lay workers win strike against ‘suicide shifts’

Workers at the Frito-Lay factory in Topeka, Kansas, held their ground and won a favorable union contract after a solid three-week walkout. Frito-Lay is owned by PepsiCo and operates 30 other manufacturing centers throughout the country. The company made $4.2 billion last year. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, to meet rising demand, instead of hiring more workers and paying decent wages, the bosses were imposing 12-hour shifts, separated by only 8 hours off, 7 days a week. 

Lawsuits for racial discrimination, first in June 2020 and again in February 2021, pointed to the company passing over Black employees for promotions, and giving Black employees less training and more demanding jobs. The plant’s workforce is represented by Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 218. 

By early July, after nine months of negotiations hadn’t yielded a fair offer for a new contract,

workers’ frustrations were coming to a head. The punishing shifts and 84-hour workweeks were the straw that broke the camel’s back, but stagnant wages, speedups, and unsafe working conditions were also a major factor in the struggle.

Two workers died on the job

One of the striking workers, Cherie Renfro, wrote an opinion piece in a Topeka newspaper during the walkout that revealed that two workers have died under the harsh conditions being imposed. At the time of one of the deaths, the man collapsed while working and the bosses didn’t even stop the production line. They had workers move the body so that a co-worker could stand in for him and production never stopped.

The company denies that it happened, but her account is backed up by co-worker and union steward Mark McCarter, who told Vice News, “I can tell you that many people have had heart attacks in the heat at Frito-Lay since I’ve been here. One guy died a few years ago and the company had people pick him up, move him over to the side, and put another person in his spot without shutting the business down for two seconds. It seems like I go to one funeral a year for someone who’s had a heart attack at work or someone who went home to their barn and shot themselves in the head or hung themselves.”

Workers also have complained about fire hazards because boxes are packed and stacked up without stopping. People have been working fast out of fear of retaliation, and exits are often blocked up by stacks of boxes.

Although Kansas is less unionized than the national average at less than 9%, Topeka is a union city. A full 26% of workers there are members of unions–well over double the national rate of 10.8%. 

The membership at the Frito-Lay plant voted down an offer on July 3, when bosses offered wage increases that for many workers would have been less than 50 cents an hour. In this unionized city, as prices are increasing and as workers had been working throughout the pandemic and risking their health without even receiving hazard pay, the 50 cents per hour offer was insulting. 

In several other unionized workplaces in Topeka, workers have won annual cost-of-living increases of 77 cents per hour, in addition to regular wage increases fought for and won in contract negotiations. The offer was in fact voted down because the company was trying to get away without adequately addressing the grueling “suicide shifts” as workers called them. 

But the company’s bargaining team still tried to paint a picture of a generous offer being rejected by irresponsible union officers. They pushed the idea that they have a labor shortage, clinging to the corporate line that the Federal Unemployment Supplement established under the CARES Act was erasing incentive for the unemployed to work. 

Frito-Lay’s practice of Amazon-style hyper exploitation shows their difficulty maintaining a workforce is self-inflicted. Union steward McCarter told the Topeka Capital-Journal, “The problem is they hire (new people) and then work them 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and after about a week of that, they go, ‘Oh no’ and don’t show up.”

Picket line solidarity

As pitiful as their July 3 offer was, Frito-Lay bosses still sulked and walked away from the bargaining table after it was rejected. That’s when the workers at the Topeka plant hit the bricks.

When the walkout happened the bosses vowed to continue running the idled plant and sent a welcome message to any workers that cared to cross the picket line. 

The e-mailed statement oozed with the confidence that bosses across the giant U.S. economy have developed during this long 4-decades of anti-union rampage. But 600 workers continued walking the picket line. UAW members from two different locals in Kansas City gathered money donations on Facebook, and food and supplies from small businesses and other union workers and then caravanned the hour-long drive to the picket line for a support rally. 

Soon Frito-Lay snacks started to disappear from grocery store shelves. In just under three weeks the bosses blinked. The new contract bans suicide shifts and puts a cap on hours of 60 per week and at least one day off per week. Workers got a 4% raise over two years, and there will be a team of workers and management to address safety conditions in the plant.