The Stranger's sister publication, The Portland Mercury, originally posted this report on their blog, Blogtown. Follow them for the latest Portland updates.
Workers at a Nabisco factory in Northeast Portland are in the second week of a strike that has spread across the country in what one local union member has described as a fight to “save middle class American jobs.”
The strike, led by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union Local 364 (BCTGM), comes as the union is at a standstill in contract negotiations with Mondelez International, the Chicago-based multinational snack food corporation that owns Nabisco.
Michael Burlingham, the union vice president, said that some 200 workers have walked off the job making Oreos, Ritz, Chips Ahoy! and other products and onto a picket line on Northeast Columbia Street. Members of other unions represented at the factory are honoring the strike.
On the line, Burlingham says, are the kind of middle class jobs that have been vanishing from the country for decades.
“The people who have come before us have fought to have the wages and the benefits that we have today, and it allows us to have a good middle class job that we can be proud of,” Burlingham said. “The company wants to take that away.”
One of the major issues workers have raised in contract negotiations is Mondelez’s proposal to shift workers to an alternative workweek, one which would see employees clock longer hours each day and effectively eliminate overtime pay for weekend work.
Burlingham estimated that workers could stand to lose between $10,000 and $40,000 per year if the proposed changes to overtime pay are enacted.
There are other areas of concern as well. Mondelez has proposed giving new union members a lesser healthcare plan than current members. The company also stopped paying into workers’ pensions two years ago, making it more difficult for some members to retire.
Workers fear that, if the union doesn't concede to these changes, Mondelez will move the Portland jobs out of the country.
In a Monday press statement, Mondelez said that it was “disappointed” with their employees’ decision to strike.
"Our goal has been—and continues to be—to bargain in good faith with the BCTGM leadership across our US bakeries and sales distribution facilities to reach new contracts that continue to provide our employees with good wages and competitive benefits,” it said.
Union members, who have worked without a contract between 2016 and 2020, don’t see it that way. Burlingham said that the union has not had a positive relationship with Mondelez since the corporation absorbed the Nabisco brand in 2012 and that a strike was “a long time coming.”
The Portland factory is unusual for an important reason: many of its hourly workers have been with the company for decades. Burlingham is in his fifteenth year at the site. BCTGM Local 364 business agent Cameron Taylor has been at the bakery for nearly 40 years. His longest tenured colleague has worked there for more than 50 years.
“The way I look at it is that these people work together, they work long hours, they’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s almost like shared misery builds strong bonds. It’s a pretty tight knit group,” Taylor said.
In the meantime, Mondelez has brought in replacement workers in an attempt to continue production during the strike and has said that it is “committed to continuing to supply our delicious snacks to retailers and consumers.” Taylor said that picketers can smell the replacement workers trying to fire up the Chips Ahoy! production line.
The existing contract offer is a particularly unappealing after workers labored long hours at the height of the pandemic to keep up with an increased demand for snack food. Taylor said that union members were routinely forced to work for twelve straight days last year without a day off, sometimes for up to 13 hours per day.
The result of that labor was that Mondelez netted $26.6 billion in revenue in 2020, a 2.6 percent increase over 2019. Profits nearly doubled in the second quarter of 2021.
Despite that success, Mondelez has closed two of its largest American facilities in the last year: one in Atlanta, Georgia and the other in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Those closures left 1,000 workers unemployed—nearly half of Nabisco’s unionized American workforce.
Many of those Nabisco jobs, since the passage of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), have been moved to Mexico, where workers are reportedly paid poverty wages. Mondelez has only three remaining American bakeries, located in Portland, Richmond, Virginia, and Chicago, Illinois, as well as a distribution facility in Aurora, Colorado.
The Richmond and Aurora sites are also on strike. The union has accused Mondelez of threatening to transfer more US jobs out of the country if workers do not acquiesce to its demands.
“There’s no animosity on our part towards the Mexican workers,” Taylor said. “Our animosity is towards the company. The Mexican workers are just getting exploited.”
Mondelez spokesperson Laurie Guzzinati said that the company is committed to its Portland bakery.
“This is not about Mexico,” she said. “This is contract negotiations. We look forward to resuming those negotiations. This is not at all about Mexico, not about production in Mexico, jobs to Mexico—none of that.”
Workers at Local 364 have long asked Portlanders to refrain from buying Nabisco products produced outside of the US. Now, while on strike, they are asking that no one buy Nabisco products at all.
Burlingham said that many in the Northeast Portland factory closely watched the progress of the Frito-Lay strike led by fellow BCTGM workers in Topeka, Kansas over the company’s mandatory overtime policy in July and were heartened by the positive outcome those workers won.
The number of strikes in the United States has increased sharply in recent years, and the striking workers have felt support not only from other unions and progressive organizations in Portland, but also from regular citizens.
“The community solidarity, the community support, random strangers that are stocking us with ice, and food, and posting things on social media—it's been more than I’ve expected,” Burlingham said. “I knew that we had support, but to see at what scale the support we have, it's been really amazing to see.”
As the strike has spread, BCTGM workers have been backed by elected officials like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkely.
Mondelez has been in the crosshairs of national politicians before, including earlier this year regarding the closure of the Fair Lawn plant, and during the 2016 election, when Donald Trump announced that he would boycott Oreos over a Mondelez decision to relocate jobs to Mexico.
Laura Wadlin, the co-chair of Portland's Democratic Socialists of America chapter, has been impressed with the organization of the strike so far.
“We’re talking about workers who come from so many different backgrounds and nationalities,” she said. “It’s a clear example of multiracial, working class solidarity. It’s very clear from talking to them that they know the stakes.”
Taylor concurred, saying that if Mondelez is asking for concessions after posting enormous profits, workers have no choice but to push back.
“If we don’t take a stand now, this job won’t be worth fighting for,” Taylor said.