By Sarah Ahmed
On July 5, 600 workers at a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas walked out on the job and began striking after voting down a proposed contract during union negotiations. Workers are demanding higher wages and an end to mandatory overtime.
Workers at the plant are represented by Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Union, which has been in negotiations with Frito-Lay since their contract expired last September. On July 3, workers voted 353-30 in favor to strike and to reject an agreement that gave them a 2 percent raise and limited mandatory overtime to 60 hours a week. For many workers, this increase would be less than 50 cents per hour. The union leadership recommended that workers accept the contract, which was almost identical to a contract that workers voted down in May.
The workers carried out their walkout this past Monday as the previous contract extension expired. Across from the Frito-Lay plant, they held signs and stood in tents which held donations of food and water from the local community. This outside support is crucial, as workers receive strike benefits from the union of only $105 per week for up to ten weeks. Residents in nearby Wichita, Kansas also organized a boycott of products from PepsiCo (which owns Frito-Lay) in solidarity with the striking workers.
Workers on the picket line told Tribune that it is normal for the company to require them to work seven-day, sixty-hour weeks. Workers may be required to work “suicide” shifts, which are back-to-back twelve-hour shifts with only eight hours off in between.
Workers contrasted their grueling shifts with the fact that the production machines are shut off for twelve hours for required maintenance. Charles Taylor, a machine operator, told Tribune, “[The machines] get down time, but we still don’t get down time.” Taylor also described how, when a worker died on shift, the company simply moved the body to ensure that production was not interrupted.
One worker described leaving for work while his family was still asleep, and then coming home after his family had gone to bed for the night. Several workers quipped that their time on the picket was the longest they had spent with their family in years.
Another worker shared his experience raising a family while working at the plant, saying “Every parent wants to be with their children when they’re born. You have to go without pay or you have to have vacation, just to get time off to go help your baby mama.”
The company has responded to the strike by hiring private security to monitor and intimidate striking workers. In addition, for two months leading up to the strike, Frito-Lay brought in contracted workers from across the country and provided them with housing and transportation. Frito-Lay has continued to bring in scabs during the strike. The company has also cut workers’ health insurance policies in an attempt to intimidate workers into ending the strike.
Despite the company’s efforts, production has taken a serious hit since the strike began, with several reports on social media that local grocery stores were out of some Frito-Lay products. One striking worker named Teresa told Tribune that management is “so greedy. And we’re the ones making this stuff. You know, they ain’t out there making it. That’s why nothing’s running over there.”
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