by Ben Solidaridad
After waging a militant, nearly three-week-long strike that inspired working people across the country, hundreds of workers at the Frito-Lay snack foods plant in Topeka, Kansas have voted to accept a new union contract and return to work.
The Frito-Lay strike – which was prompted by grievances relating to extreme levels of forced overtime, stagnant wages, and abusive management at the plant – came to an end when workers voted on Friday, July 23 to approve a new tentative agreement worked out between the company and the workers’ union, Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM). The following Monday, the roughly 600 strikers from Local 218 returned to the job for the first time since the start of the strike on July 5. While the union has not released specific details regarding the contract vote, officials have stated that the vote margin was close.
Throughout this struggle, the Frito-Lay strikers drew widespread backing from fellow workers and supporters, not only in the Topeka area but around the country. As detailed in posts by the Topeka Frito-Lay Union Appreciation Page on social media, during the course of the strike, untold numbers of fellow trade unionists and community members made trips to the picket line to drop off provisions, make donations, and picket outside the sprawling Topeka plant in solidarity with the Local 218 strikers. Meanwhile, a fundraiser started by the Topeka-based 785 magazine in conjunction with Local 218 helped raise tens of thousands of dollars in donations to assist the Frito-Lay strikers by paying their water and other utility bills for the month of July. Many trade unionists and supporters across Kansas and around the country also vowed to back the call by the Local 218 strikers to boycott products by Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, the parent company of Frito-Lay, for the duration of the strike.
Notably, the Frito-Lay strike also drew significant national and even international media coverage, which helped to broadcast the workers’ grievances and expose the horrendous conditions at Frito-Lay that led to the strike. As reiterated in untold news stories, including in the New York Times and the Washington Post, many workers at the plant have for much of the pandemic been forced to work as much as 84 hours a week – seven days a week, 12 hours a day – with no days off for months at a time. Workers are also compelled to work what are known as “suicide shifts,” where they’re forced to work back-to-back twelve-hour shifts with just eight hours time off between them. Workers report being forced to work until 7 p.m. at night – and then made to come back to work the following day at 3 a.m. On top of this, pay at the Frito-Lay plant has stagnated for years. Prior to the resolution of the strike, many veteran workers had not received raises for as much as seven or eight years.
The gruelling levels of forced overtime have undermined the health and family lives of workers at the plant. The conditions are such that some workers have been driven to suicide – and, by the company’s own admission, at least two workers at the plant have died in the past five years after experiencing medical emergencies on the shopfloor. In an article published in Vice, Mark McCarter, a 37-year veteran worker at the plant and a shop stewart in Local 218, provides a harrowing description of the toll that working at Frito-Lay has exacted on the lives of workers at the plant,
I can tell you that many people have had heart attacks in the heat at Frito-Lay since I’ve been here. One guy died a few years ago and the company had people pick him up, move him over to the side, and put another person in his spot without shutting the business down for two seconds.
It seems like I go to one funeral a year for someone who’s had a heart attack at work or someone who went home to their barn and shot themselves in the head or hung themselves.
This used to be a bomb place to work. We had picnics together. We’d go to Worlds of Fun [an amusement park] together. We had community, lunch served, Christmas ham, Thanksgiving turkey. We’d do all that. These days we do absolutely nothing for employees. We work them; we send them home. It’s demoralizing and it’s truly nuts how a Fortune 500 company can get away with this kind of foolishness.
The hyper-exploited conditions faced by workers at the Topeka facility come as Frito-Lay’s parent company PepsiCo has reported that it’s bringing in record-level revenues and profit. According to the company, which also owns Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and other brands, revenue in the second quarter of this year “surged 20.5 percent to $19.2 billion from a year earlier.” Meanwhile, the company’s profit rose some 43 percent to $2.4 billion, up from $1.7 billion for the same quarter last year. The company is making a killing through squeezing and slavedriving workers on the shopfloor.
The intolerable conditions at the plant set the stage for an upsurge in worker militancy and collective combativeness. As Cherie Renfro, a nine-year veteran worker at the plant, wrote in a letter to the Frito-Lay bosses published in the Topeka Capital-Journal on the eve of the walkout, “Your threats and bully tactics only fuel our fire. You have pushed us into a corner and we came out swinging.” Since last year, Local 218 has led a protracted contract campaign at the plant, which included a number of informational pickets staged by workers. Prior to the start of the strike, union workers also voted down multiple contract offers from the company. The union’s previous contract at the plant had expired in September 2020, and workers at the plant had been working under extensions before the strike.
Notably, the strike – which involved upwards of 600 out of 850 workers at the plant – succeeded in fully shutting down production at the facility for much of its early duration. In a July 10 story in Labor Notes, striking worker Monk Drapeaux-Stewart reported that, “There’s been no smoke, no steam, no nothing, no sign of production at all” coming from the plant. As the Topeka plant is Frito-Lay’s second largest production facility throughout the country, this caused disruptions in the company’s supply chain and put significant pressure on management.
For workers who held the line for nearly three weeks, the terms of the newly-approved two-year agreement appear to be mixed. Workers will gain some reprieve to the forced overtime situation at the plant. Under the new deal, all workers are guaranteed at least one day off a week on the sixth or seventh day of the work week, provided that the worker has not taken any time off earlier in the week. In addition, “suicide shifts” at the plant – what the company has attempted to euphemistically brand as “squeeze shifts” – will be done away with. In terms of wages, workers at the plant will for the first year of the contract receive a 3 percent raise, which is retroactive to the expiration of the previous contract in September 2020. In the second year of the deal, workers will receive a 1 percent raise. Notably, in a previous contract proposal that union members voted down on the eve of the strike, workers had also been offered a 4 percent raise over two years.
Many of the militant rank-and-file fighters from Local 218 have been outspoken in their disappointment that workers at the facility were not able to stay out for longer and win more of their demands from the company. In a July 24 report in the Capital-Journal, Cherie Renfro states that, “I’m disappointed that the majority accepted this offer. We had the power to make real changes here, and enough of us lost faith in the process.” At the same time, she adds, “I want to thank everyone who supported us, from honks; bringing supplies, funds and food; words of encouragement; signing the boycott; standing with us on the line and more. You have given us the caring that Frito-Lay is incapable of giving. … I am forever grateful.”
Particularly revealing is a July 24 article from the New York Times, which reports that, “One warehouse worker who has been at the plant for roughly two decades said there was ‘more disappointment than happiness’ with the contract. The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearful of retaliation from the company, said that many workers who crossed the picket line or voted to approve the contract did so out of need.” As the anonymous worker told the Times, “A lot of people had to vote yes because they were running out of money and didn’t have insurance.”
Despite this, it’s clear that the strike was, nonetheless, able to exact some concessions from the company – most prominently the guaranteed one-day off per week (with stipulations) and the end of “suicide shifts.” Moreover, the display of workers’ power provided by the strike will, no doubt, set the stage for future struggles with the company. Most critically, the strike will be a factor in negotiations for the next contract at the plant, which are set to take place next year; the new contract expires in September 2022.
One issue brought to light by the struggle at Frito-Lay is the need to build workers’ power throughout the company’s entire network of North American production and distribution facilities. According to Labor Notes, Frito-Lay operates some 30 manufacturing facilities, and most of them are non-union. And workers throughout the company’s supply chain appear to be suffering from many of the same grievances and deteriorating conditions that led the Topeka workers to walk off the job. According to an anonymous letter written by the spouse of a Frito-Lay worker at one of the company’s other facilities, her husband and his coworkers are also forced to work obscene amounts of unpredictable, compulsory overtime and, in addition, have been denied meaningful wage increases for years. The situation is such that, “I have joked that I’m a single, married mom” because her partner is always being forced to work mandatory overtime, she writes in the letter, also published in Labor Notes.
Meanwhile, also this month, truck drivers and other workers at the Pepsi bottling plant in Munster, Indiana went on strike on July 12. The striking workers, organized through Teamsters Local 142, cite many of the same grievances as their brothers and sisters on strike in Topeka at Frito-Lay, also owned by PepsiCo.
Beyond this, a simple search of job reviews on the website Indeed for Frito-Lay facilities across the country indicates that the company’s other production and distribution facilities would make for prime organizing targets for the BCTGM or other unions. For example, a former worker at the Frito-Lay facility in Torrance, California in the Los Angeles area provides the following indictment of company management in his Indeed job review from March 2021:
They were more concerned about the chips than the humans who worked in the facility. They teach and preach teamwork all the time but the actions do not back up what they expect from you.
Meanwhile, another Torrance worker, writing in 2018, notes that while working at Frito-Lay used to be a good job, “now they have taken that away. We are overworked… with less pay.”
Ultimately, as is true with the struggle for socialism, it will take widespread working-class solidarity and the exertion of workers’ power in order to win justice at Frito-Lay and put the rapacious, thieving bosses and investors that control PepsiCo in their rightful place.