News & Commentary

September 19, 2021

Kevin Vazquez

Kevin Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

The Nabisco strike, which began more than five weeks ago in Portland and rapidly spread across the country, appears to be coming to a close. The striking workers, according to BCTGM, the union which represents them, voted “overwhelmingly” to ratify a tentative agreement on a new contract with Mondelez International, their parent company. Local union chapters will now vote on the contract after it is presented to its members later this week, formally bringing the strike to a close. The striking workers spanned five different factories across five states, and their contracts, which were identical, all expired in May (a tactic known as “contract line-up,” strategically adopted by union organizers to allow large simultaneous strikes). They were calling for improved working conditions – which had worsened during the pandemic and included forced 12 to 16-hour shifts, often back-to-back, known as “suicide shifts,” and six- or seven-day workweeks –better wages and benefits, including the restoration of their pension plan, which Mondelez International had replaced with an inferior program in 2018, and improved overtime and health insurance provisions. Nabisco, in contrast, saw its revenue rise considerably during the pandemic, as demand for snacks from millions of self-quarantined Americans skyrocketed: Its reported revenue was $26.8 billion in 2020, a 3 percent increase from the year before, and its revenue last quarter was $6.64 billion, a 12 percent increase from last year. Dirk Van de Put, the company’s new CEO, is on track to earn more than $55 million in compensation – including a one-time $38 million payday – this year.

According to More Perfect Union, the tentative deal includes, among other provisions, $0.60 per hour wage increases each year for the next four years and a $5,000 bonus for all employees, and it eliminates Mondelez’s proposed two-tiered health insurance system that penalized newer employees – but it does not terminate the company’s plan to implement 12-hour weekend shifts without overtime through a staggered “weekend crew” system. Many workers and union officials have expressed disappointment with the deal, but Anthony Shelton, BCTGM’s International President, praised it. “BCTGM’s striking members made enormous sacrifices in order to achieve a quality contract,” he said, and the agreement was the result of the “tremendous courage, grit, and determination” displayed by the striking workers, in addition to the “outpouring of fraternal support and solidarity [the workers] received from across the labor movement.” The strike received national attention and widespread public support, including that of many celebrities, Democratic politicians, and other unions and worker organizations. While the ultimate agreement leaves much to be desired – and is certainly far from what many beleaguered Nabisco workers desire and deserve – it is undeniably an improvement upon the previous contract. The workers’ ability to bring a powerful multinational corporation to the bargaining table and force it to cede real ground is a testament to the strength, resiliency, and vitality – not to mention broad public appeal – of collective action, solidarity, and a militant labor movement.

In other news, more than 1,000 HelloFresh factory workers, frustrated with low wages and unsafe working conditions, are launching union drives with UNITE HERE in California and Colorado, according to Vice, and UNITE HERE has already filed a petition with the NLRB asking to authorize a vote in the Aurora, Colorado factory. If the workers vote to unionize, they will be the first to do so in the rapidly growing home-delivery meal kit industry. HelloFresh, the largest and most popular company in the increasingly competitive field, sold nearly 300 million meals in the U.S. last year, doubling its revenue to $2.5 billion. Many of its workers, meanwhile, are unable to afford rent, suffer serious injuries on the assembly line, and work in exhausting and degrading conditions. The HelloFresh campaign is the latest entry in a growing list of pandemic-fueled labor activism in the food industry, and, if successful, it could spark a wave of similar organizing efforts at other HelloFresh factories and even other meal-delivery companies, such as Blue Apron. Those interested in providing their support to the organizing workers can sign this petition organized by UNITE HERE, which calls on HelloFresh to “not harass or intimidate workers for organizing a union” and to cancel their “anti-union consultant.”

On Friday, NLRB lawyers found merit in a union’s claim that grocery store workers have a right to wear items bearing the Black Lives Matter slogan. UFCW 21, which represents more than 46,000 grocery and retail workers and is based in Seattle, announced in a press release that NLRB Region 19, also based in Seattle, had ruled against QFC and Fred Meyer, two companies owned by Kroger, after they had prohibited workers from wearing Black Lives Matter messages, including buttons and masks. Although Kroger released public statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, managers at Kroger-owned stores ordered workers belonging to UFCW 21 to remove Black Lives Matter masks in August 2020. In response, the union distributed buttons to its members, which management also ordered them to remove, prompting it to file charges with the NLRB in September 2020. Region 19 will now pursue a settlement agreement with Kroger, likely demanding that it change its company policy. If no settlement is reached, it will issue a formal complaint against Kroger, and a trial will be held before an Administrative Law Judge, whose ruling could be appealed to the NLRB in Washington D.C.

Finally, looking beyond U.S. borders, international labor and human rights organizations, including the AFL-CIO and other major unions, are calling for FIFA to prioritize human and worker rights during preparations for the 2026 World Cup, which will be held in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Preparations for the 2022 World Cup, hosted by Qatar, have been harshly criticized for unaddressed allegations of severe abuse – including thousands of deaths – of migrant workers, and serious criticism has been directed at FIFA and other governing bodies for their failure to take remedial action. Many labor activists and organizations are demanding that things occur differently in North America in 2026. “[I]f FIFA is serious about its commitment to human rights, worker protection, and fair labor practices,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler on Friday, “[then] the organization must engage with human rights stakeholders during the site visits, and must put in place, for itself and for host cities, robust and comprehensive human rights plans.” AFL-CIO has also called on FIFA to ensure that construction and service companies awarded contracts for the World Cup create good jobs and hire local residents – ensuring that communities benefit from the wealth they create for FIFA as the most-watched global sporting competition unfolds.

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