Nabisco starts to crumble under strike pressure, struggle continues

Striking Nabisco workers on the picket line in Portland, Ore. Photo: Jobs With Justice

After five weeks on strike against snack company Nabisco and its parent monopoly, Mondelez International, workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) voted to approve a new contract on Sept. 16-17. The union was able to partially derail the company’s aggressive takeback campaign, but the struggle will continue.

Like one of Nabisco’s ill-considered holiday-flavored Oreos, the strike tore off the company’s comforting cookie shell and exposed the nasty filling at the center of the snack profiteer.

During the pandemic, Nabisco forced workers to take 12-to-16-hour shifts to meet increased demand rather than hiring more workers. Nabisco then wanted to convert the pandemic situation into a permanent profit-grab by enshrining 12-hour, 3-day weekend shifts with no overtime pay in a new contract, while also cutting back healthcare benefits.

Nabisco bosses’ ultimatum pushed workers to take action, much like the July strike by Frito Lay workers against similar “suicide shifts.” Many industries are now pushing to adopt these kinds of anti-worker policies, pioneered by online giant Amazon.com.

Workers also demanded the restoration of their pensions, which the company had unilaterally replaced with a 401k plan, and guarantees that the company was not planning to close more factories beyond two that were shut down earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Nabisco’s parent company, based in Chicago, reported a 2.8 percent increase in revenue in 2020 and its CEO Dirk Van de Put made nearly $17 million last year. The corporation, which includes other subsidiaries like Barclays and Cadbury, reported $5.5 billion in profits in the second quarter of 2021.

Broad support for workers

The strike broke out in Portland, Ore., where 200 workers walked out on Aug. 10,  and quickly spread to bakeries and distribution centers in Chicago, Aurora, Colo., Richmond, Va., and Norcross, Ga.

The union called for a boycott of Nabisco products, including Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Ritz crackers, Fig Newtons, Triscuits and Wheat Thins: “No contract, no snacks!” 

The slogan was taken up by supporters across the country, including actor Danny DeVito, who tweeted his support and was punished by Twitter, which removed his “verified” status. DeVito was joined by members of the Portland Thorns, the champion National Women’s Soccer League team.

Union members and community groups across the U.S. plastered shelves in grocery stores with boycott stickers and donated to a fund to support strikers and their families.

Nabisco chose this moment to launch a major promotion with Oreo cookies featuring the popular Pokémon video game and anime characters to counter bad publicity generated by the strike. It backfired, as many gamers and gaming journalists came out in support of the strikers. 

“Pokémon or no, I can do without Oreos until the countless people who make them are finally treated with a modicum of respect for their labor,” wrote Ian Walker of Kotaku.

Company violence

BCTGM Local 364 in Portland was in the thick of it. This militant local led the initial walkout and built considerable community support, with weekly mass rallies and daily pickets confronting scabs hired by Nabisco/Mondelez.

The pickets were effective — so much so that Portland cops were enlisted by the bosses to ban strikers and supporters from company parking lots where they were blocking bused-in scabs and managers. They also kicked workers off railroad tracks where supply trains were unloaded.

Taking another page from the Amazon playbook, Mondelez hired Huffmaster, a “private security company” that specializes in union busting, to protect scabs and attack picketers. Huffmaster’s goons repeatedly threatened, pushed, shoved, jabbed and stomped on the feet of picketers.

Jesse Dreyer, a Teamster who came out to support the Portland picket, was badly beaten for several minutes by the anti-union goons. The attack was captured on video. Dreyer is suing Huffmaster for damages in federal court.

“It felt really personal, because I’ve been out there every single day,” Dreyer told the Portland Mercury. “They know my face, and I yell at them, ‘Shame on you,’ every single morning. It felt like they targeted me … and got out a little bit of what they wanted to.”

On Sept. 12, Willamette Week reported that Huffmaster had posted ads to hire more goons in other cities where Nabisco workers were on strike.

Contract signed, struggle continues

The BCTGM national negotiating team reached a tentative agreement with Nabisco/Mondelez International management on Sept. 15. 

Although not all details have been released, we know the company withdrew its plan to cut workers’ healthcare, including for new hires, and added a cash bonus. The union, in turn, agreed to allow the company to introduce its sought-after 12-hour, 3-day weekend shifts, with the company promising not to force any current workers to take those shifts.

On Sept. 16, the Portland local voted overwhelmingly against the proposal, urging workers in other cities to do the same. However, the following day, the contract was approved nationally by a 3 to 1 margin.

Local 364 Vice President Mike Burlingham explained: “This is a way for the company to remove premium pay for weekend work… This will create a divide between lower and senior employees within the bakery as junior people will be forced into this [weekend shift] should nobody volunteer. It’s still the intentional divide the company is creating, just structured in a different way.”

Nevertheless, he told the Portland Mercury, the fact that Mondelez had to sit down and negotiate with the union showed how powerful the strike was. “In the nine years we’ve been under Mondelez, this is the very first time they have actually sat down and negotiated in good faith with our negotiating team. It took them five weeks to do it.

“We always knew that Portland is a different climate than the rest of the country,” Burlingham said. “We knew that there was fight in us here, and we had a lot of backing from supporters in the community to help us. I can’t speak for the other locations, but if I had to guess, they might not have had that same kind of boost that we did here.”

Local 364 President Jesus Martinez added, “It’s still going to be a fight for four years. Even though the company says they want it to be harmonious, that’s if they respect the contract. But they never have and they never will.”

While the Nabisco strike ended in a mixed result, it was an important step in exposing and combating the strategy of U.S. bosses to take back workers’ rights in the Amazon era. 

As Burlingham said: “This is the working class fight. Between Frito Lay, the Alabama coal miners’ strike and us, there’s a lot of people paying attention — and not just in the United States.”