Trevor Bidelman is a fourth-generation Kellogg’s worker. His great-grandpa, his grandpa and grandma, and his dad all worked at the storied cereal maker’s Battle Creek, Michigan, plant, making breakfast staples like Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes.

Now Bidelman is on strike with 1,400 other Kellogg’s workers at four plants, and wonders if it will be a job worth taking when his own four kids grow up.

“This is a company that’s been coming at us over and over and over while their profits grow,” said Bidelman, 40, a mechanic at the plant and president of the local affiliate of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), which represents Kellogg’s workers. “This fight is about the people coming up behind us. We’ve got to say enough is enough.”

The showdown at Kellogg’s revolves around a two-tier work system that the union says management is trying to expand at its plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Their most recent contract created a class of “transitional” employees who are paid lower rates and have lesser benefits than “legacy” employees. These newer employees can graduate into the legacy system as more tenured workers retire or quit, and the contract stipulates no more than 30% of the workforce can be “transitional.”

But workers say Kellogg’s is seeking to eliminate that cap as they negotiate a new five-year contract. They fear that if they do so, all workers on the lower level would be left behind after their legacy colleagues have gone.

“This is a company that’s been coming at us over and over and over while their profits grow.”

Trevor Bidelman (Kellogg’s mechanic, president of BCTGM 3G)

While pay rates can vary depending on the position, many workers stated that there is a difference of approximately $12 an hour between transitional employees and legacy employees. The latter also pay health care costs that their legacy counterparts don’t, and are on a lesser retirement plan.

Bidelman maintains that if the cap were lifted on the lower tier, then down the road Kellogg’s would no longer be middle-class-sustaining work. His own salary would not change, but those of his coworkers in the future would.

“When you look at the Battle Creek area, getting into Kellogg’s was a career,” he said. “Now they want to turn it into a job. What they don’t understand is you’re only in a job until you find a better one and grab it.”

The top pay for the legacy scale is around $30 an hour. Kellogg’s spokesperson Kris Bahner said in an email that the average earnings of a Kellogg’s cereal worker came to around $120,000 last year, and that most employees (i.e., legacy ones) have “unparalleled, no-cost comprehensive health insurance.”

He said the company’s proposal to the union would “offer significant increases in wages, benefits and retirement,” though presumably the company would save considerable money over time as the lower tier of workers expanded.

“We are disappointed by the union’s decision to strike,” Bahner said. “Kellogg provides compensation and benefits for our U.S. [ready-to-eat cereal] employees that are among the industry’s best.”

Dan Osborn, a plant mechanic and president of the local in Omaha, Nebraska, said legacy employees do make good money, and he doesn’t doubt many earn $120,000 or more. The majority of the money comes from overtime, where employees work 12- to 16-hour hours, sometimes seven days a semaine.

“Say you got a guy on legacy making $30 an hour. The crude math, at 40 hours a week, that would be $60,000 a year,” he explained. To get to $120,000, “that’s how much overtime people are working.”

Bidelman stated that 116 was his longest consecutive stretch of workdays, without any breaks. Osborn claimed that workers often don’t get enough time to spend with family members.

“I don’t have any friends anymore,” Osborn said. “I’ve been there 18 years. I don’t have time for friends. The reason why I do it is because I feel my job, as a man, as a father and a husband, is to provide for my family.”

Many unionized employers would rather have their employees work overtime than pay a penalty to the existing workforce.

Osborn stated that the company and union agreed to the last contract six years prior to the introduction of the transitional program. He said he and other members resisted the new, lower tier but feared Kellogg’s would close the Memphis plant and nearly 300 workers would lose their jobs if they didn’t accept it. He now believes it is being used by the company as a wedge.

Because workers aren’t rewarded for equal work, two-tier system can cause discord in unions. Osborn observed that transitional workers would eventually make up the bulk of union members if there was no cap on their transitional roles. Some may be displeased with legacy members’ lack of support and might not want to stand up for legacy member in contract talks.

Kevin Bradshaw is president of BCTGM, Local 252G. He was pictured on the picket-line with his Memphis coworkers.
Photo courtesy Kevin Bradshaw

Kevin Bradshaw, who has worked at the Memphis plant for 20 years, said what the company is asking would undermine the union’s solidarity. As president of the Memphis Local, he has attempted to relay that message to his colleagues. It was a joy for him to observe that most of his bargaining units voted in favor of allowing a strike.

“You’re driving the workforce into the ground by separating people and not treating them equally,” he said. “Same job, less money. Who would want to work that way?”

The strike at Kellogg’s, which began Tuesday, is part of a string of work stoppages declared recently by the BCTGM, which represents 60,000 workers, many of them in industrial food production. The chip manufacturer’s members Frito-LayMembers at snack maker were also notified that the members had walked out of their offices in July. NabiscoIn early August, he did. Both strikes were ended by new agreements.

Nabisco workers succeeded fought offThe company offers a two-tier plan for their health insurance, but the new contract permits them to hire weekend workers without the traditional premium.

The BCTGM told HuffPost it is not declaring a formal boycott against Kellogg’s products at the moment, as it did against Nabisco. “However,” a spokesperson said in an email, “supporters and consumers could certainly support the Kellogg workers and their fight for a fair contract by choosing NOT to buy Kellogg cereals while the strike is ongoing.”

Osborn stated that he is bothered by companies asking for concessions during strong sales. Kellogg’s had an operating profit of $1.76 billion on $13.8 billion in sales last year, according to the company’s most recent annual report. He said considering the company’s financial footing, the union went into negotiations seeking to eliminate or phase out the two-tier system. The company instead proposed to grow it.

“I was blown away,” he said.


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