OMAHA — The shelves at the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union Local 50 are lined with boxes of Kellogg’s products that the union members and their mothers, brothers, and grandfathers have packed over the past century. A Froot Loops box commemorating the 2012 Olympics sits next to Special K Plus, a cereal that for some reason comes in a milk carton. A toy truck delivers Corn Flakes. Still, what catches your eye is a box featuring an impossibly cute boy slurping up his Rice Krispies. No one knows when exactly the box is from — probably the early 20th century — but it conjures a homier time for the company. That’s when company founder W.K. Kellogg was asked about profits and said, “I’ll invest my money in people.”
That was a long time ago. Now, the investment only goes to certain people, like Kellogg CEO Steve Cahillane. He brings in nearly $12 million a year in compensation, nearly 280 times the company average.
The workers? They’ve time-traveled to William Blake’s dark-satanic-mills era of factory work, where a purposely understaffed labor force endures, according to union workers, 72- to 84-hour work weeks — not a typo — that includes mandated overtime and a point system that dings you if you dare beg off to go watch your son’s Little League game. (Kellogg’s claims its employees only work 52 to 56 hours a week and 90 percent of overtime is voluntary, a claim BCTGM workers hotly dispute.)
“The worst is when you work a 7-to-7 and they tell you to come back at 3 a.m. on a short turnaround,” says Omaha BCTGM president Daniel Osborn, a mechanic at the plant. “You work 20, 30 days in a row and you don’t know where work and your life ends and begins.”
In 2021, as a potential strike loomed, Kellogg’s stopped hiring workers when others retired or quit. The reasoning, the workers say, was twofold: It meant that the company would spend less on benefits and that there would be fewer workers to man picket lines in the case of a strike.
“There’s been times during Covid when we were 100 workers under what we should have,” says Osborn, a man with close cropped blond hair and a quiet disposition that runs counter to the image of the burly union leader. He is 47 and has worked for Kellogg’s for 18 years, often 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
In 2015, he gave more than just his time. Osborn was looking forward to a Colorado vacation when he was called into the heat and white noise of the factory floor to fix a high-speed engine lathe. With his right hand inside, the machine bucked and broke his index finger and his wrist in half. It took five surgeries to get him back to a semblance of whole.
That was the same year Kellogg forced through a wage cut that divided 1,400 workers into a caste system that benefited stockholders but devastated employees. Claiming that cereal sales were down, the company threatened to close down two factories if the union didn’t accept a two-tier pay system. Veteran workers would keep “legacy status” and their salaries and benefits, but new hires would, according to the union, pay $300 more a month for their health benefits and would be paid an hourly rate as much as a third less than their more-senior union brothers and sisters.
Here’s an example: A line packager in the first tier could make around $30 an hour, while newbies make $19.50 an hour dealing with the same dystopian working conditions. Over the course of a year, the new employee would make $30,000 to $40,000 less a year for the same job, depending on the amount of overtime. The two-tier system has become a standard tool used to destroy the working class in modern America, particularly in the auto industry. The union, fearful of losing half their jobs, conceded and ratified the contract.
The message to workers was a simple one that American laborers have been hearing for decades across the country: You will not enjoy the middle-class lifestyle that your parents did working on these very same machines. Well, unless you work 72 hours a week.
Kellogg’s did offer a fig leaf, promising that every time an old-tier worker retired, a new-tier worker would be advanced into the higher-paying tier, a one-for-one deal. But the company had bureaucratic ways to prevent that from happening, including classifying mechanics like Osborn outside the purview of the tier system. The exchange rate was closer to one promotion for every three retiring old-tier workers.
“The union agreed to a two-tiered system in 2015 to help address rising labor costs, which were out of sync with the market and the rest of our network,” Kellogg’s spokesperson Kris Bahner told me. “We paid a $15,000 signing bonus to each hourly cereal employee in exchange for these changes. We [have] presented a concept that provides immediate ‘graduation’ to legacy for all employees with four or more years of service.”
That’s not the way the workers see it.
“You sign on at a place like Kellogg’s, and you know they basically own your life,” says Osborn, flexing his repaired hand. “You decide it is OK because you do it to support your family and give them a good life.” He stares down at his constantly buzzing phone. “But it has to be a relationship where you’re valued, and the company doesn’t look to squeeze out every last drop of profit at your expense.”
Osborn’s buddy Jeff Jens has been listening and sighs under his breath. He is the prototypical American union worker, a tatted-up bear of a man who walked the picket line in a driving rainstorm last night, his clothes and skin soaked to the bone. He looks like he could overturn a Chevy Blazer with his bare hands, but he is a sweetheart concerned about his kids and his legacy. His family, including two uncles, has 150 years of work experience at Kellogg’s — 46 for his father.
“The whole reason I came in was because it was a family,” says Jens. “You felt good about working somewhere your dad and his brothers worked. You almost had to know somebody or have family there to get in. They treated you with decency.”
Osborn laughs. “It used to be that you’d get hundreds of applicants for six openings. Now, they’ll take you if you can fog a mirror, and that’s because of how they treat us.”
Still, it is 2021. There’s a labor shortage and Covid-era cereal sales are booming. The company just announced more than $4 billion in gross profits. If there was ever a time for workers to regain what has been lost, it is right now. Remarkably, Kellogg’s first offered a contract that made all new workers part of the lower tier with no chance of advancement.
Kellogg workers responded by striking on Oct. 5. Since then, the company has brought in strikebreakers that it has put up at the local Doubletree Hotel, paying them $30 an hour and giving them a $75 per diem. Alas, their dedication to their craft has been less than that of union members. Videos have emerged purporting to show fistfights on the factory floor amid rumors of scabs being sacked for indolence.
The idea that their Froot Loop lords would bargain in good faith quickly evaporated, with the union anticipating that Kellogg’s would just increase the importing of cereal from their non-union Mexico plants to make up for any domestic shortfall. Shortly after the strike began, management cut off their health care, and workers were forced to pay up to $2,980 in COBRA payments, something not even John Deere management dared pull during its recent strike. (I checked with Kellogg’s about whether health benefits had been eliminated. Bahner responded succinctly: “Correct.”)
Osborn has three kids and a wife, and so far, they’re rolling the dice without insurance. “I’m just hoping to ride it out and this gets settled. He tells me his adolescent daughter — who needs special medication for a preexisting condition — is having anxiety over the cost of her meds. He has to tell her repeatedly it will be OK.
That night, I meet Daniel outside the factory where union workers walk the picket line. Whether for safety or a torture device out of The Manchurian Candidate, Kellogg’s has illuminated the area with giant floodlights that gives the spot an eerie day-for-night feeling. Billy Bragg’s “There Is Power in a Union” blasts from a sound system. I talk to one old-timer, and he asks about other stories I’ve done. I mention a piece on Virgin magnate Richard Branson shooting himself into space. The man gives a joyless laugh. “We got a man going into space, and we got a company cutting off our insurance. This country is heading in a shit direction.”
A little later, I meet John Rosenthal Jr., a modern Alexey Stakanov, a mythically hardworking Soviet coal miner of the Stalin era. Rosenthal claims he worked over 350 days last year. (Another worker showed me his timecard; it was just a line of 84-hours, seven-day-a-week entries, for months on end.)
“You take one day off and your whole sleep schedule is screwed,” jokes Rosenthal. “I tell my wife on my day off we’ve got to keep me moving or I’m just going to pass out on the couch.”
He turns serious. “I do this so my wife can be a stay-home mom. Nowadays, to do that you have to work every day.” Rosenthal is a second-generation Kellogg’s worker, following his father into the plant. His dad still works there, when he is not getting chemo treatment that he now must pay for with his exorbitant COBRA insurance.
Sadly, fairness isn’t a component of American exceptionalism. For 30 years, politicians from both parties preached about the benefits of a global economy that to workers largely meant getting kicked in the groin repeatedly, taking lower wages as corporations threatened to send their jobs overseas. Now, Kellogg’s is making billions and — with the labor shortage — it is the first time that circumstances have favored labor in decades. The American labor movement has claimed it doesn’t want a bigger slice of the pie, it wants a bigger pie. It’s nice rhetoric, but here in Omaha the workers would settle for their slice of pie being upgraded to a regular piece from a child’s portion.
That isn’t Kellogg’s take. A few days before Thanksgiving, the company and union broke off negotiations claiming they were at an impasse. The company of “we invest in our people” went thermonuclear, announcing it would begin to hire permanent replacement workers, the ultimate fuck-you to labor. Hiring permanent replacement workers has been a harsh step that Congress has periodically contemplated making illegal but never had the votes to change. It begins the tit-for-tat phase of the strike with the union filing multiple charges against Kellogg’s with the National Labor Relations Board for bargaining in bad faith. If the NLRB upholds even one of the charges, Kellogg’s ability to legally replace union workers with permanent replacement workers is eliminated. Furthermore, the first plank of any future agreement between Kellogg’s and the BCTGM will certainly force the company to rehire all of its union workers.
Still, it is a frightening development. The Nebraska wind is picking up and winter snow is imminent as BCTGM workers face a Christmas without any presents under their trees. Back on the picket line, it’s near midnight. Nearby, an SUV breaks the night silence, honking its horn in support. John Rosenthal digs his hands deeper into his jacket trying to stay warm while his union brothers down energy drinks and chain-smoke the night away. He makes a joke about his kids freaking out because he is home so much. But immediately his smile fades.
“We’re just looking for something that’s fair,” says Rosenthal. He shrugs his shoulders and looks over at the factory that consumes over half of his waking hours.
“Something fair doesn’t seem like asking for too much.”