Topeka: ‘We Will Strike Again,’ Frito-Lay Workers Comment on New Contract

Photo: A Frito-Lay worker holds a sign during the strike in July.

By Sarah Ahmed and David Martinez

Frito-Lay workers in Topeka voted to accept a new contract and end their three-week-long strike at the end of July, but workers who spoke with Tribune are not satisfied and seek to build on the strength shown during the strike.

“We want the country and the world to know what kind of a crappy deal this is,” said one worker.

In a close vote on July 24, workers decided to end their strike demanding better wages and an end to mandatory overtime, accepting a contract which includes a 4 percent raise over two years. The workers, who are part of Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Union, expressed disappointment that the revised contract does not limit overtime hours and comes with many stipulations in order for workers to take one day off per week.

A worker interviewed by Tribune said the company does not “care about your family. They don’t care about your work-life balance. And it’s obvious in this contract.”

The lack of employer-provided medical insurance while on strike loomed large in workers’ minds, and was a key reason the strike was ended, rather than feeling their demands had been met. “Nobody was happy with [the contract]. Nobody,” the worker said. “The people that voted yes are the ones that needed insurance. That was the biggest thing that was talked about during the strike, was insurance.”

Workers only received two weeks of strike benefits because the final week of the strike was not a full seven days. It was only after the new contract was signed that union leadership notified workers that they would not receive the third week of strike pay. In addition, union representatives were on the picket line pushing workers to capitulate to the company in the days prior to the agreement.

Key demands of the workers were an end to obligatory ‘suicide’ shifts, which are back-to-back twelve-hour shifts with only eight hours off in between, as well as more days off. The forced suicide shifts have been eliminated, but workers gained only one day off per-week, with heavy restrictions. One Frito-Lay worker wrote a message to Tribune expressing dissatisfaction with the contract, saying, “A lot of people say that’s not good enough, we should be able to get both days off. Management does, why can’t we? Because they need us to make them chips, they need more money.”

The same worker wrote that during the strike, those workers who remained at the factory were given two days off a week, showing that the owners are capable of providing this to workers, but choose not to. “A lot of us said it could have been better if we just waited longer, and I could agree we probably would have got both days off,” said the worker.

The other worker explained the strict limitations regarding the weekly one day off, “If you wanna get one of your days off now, you have to meet the company’s criteria. Which means you cannot take vacation time, you can’t use your floating holiday, you can’t call in sick.”

Despite frustration with the contract and understanding that more could have been done, workers were inspired by their unity with the community, which the worker said was indispensable for sustaining their morale, “The community support kept us going. It gave us strength and courage.”

“We started getting more intense in the fight recently because we saw all these other companies offering more to get people to work for them and our company was not budging on 2 percent,” the worker explained. Comparing their conditions to others around the country was a major factor in the workers’ decision to strike, and workers knew they had caught the company off guard with their vote to strike.

Now that the company had seen the readiness of the workers to fight, the worker interviewed by Tribune understands that this means that the owners will be more prepared for the next strike. However, he said, workers do not fear sharpened repression and know that they will need to fight even harder in the future.

“We did put a hurt on them. They were not ready for us. They thought they were, but they weren’t. We aren’t worried about that. We will strike again. We’re not afraid to.”

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