by Edgar Reyes
In Santa Fe Springs, California, located in the Los Angeles area, a group of largely immigrant Latina factory workers is waging a high-stakes strike against the multibillion-dollar food manufacturing company Rich Products. Since November 3, the group of well over 100 strikers has been on the picket line at the Rich Products-owned Jon Donaire Desserts plant, demanding better wages, improved retirement benefits, and changes to the company’s abusive, punitive point system, which provides workers with only three days of sick leave per year.
The striking workers are members of Local 37 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) – the same union that has waged multiple strikes across the country against major multinational food manufacturing companies thus far this year.
There is a strong feminist component to the struggle at Rich Products. After years of being pushed around, disrespected, and hyper-exploited at the hands of the company’s condescending male bosses, the disproportionately women workforce at the plant has taken a stand for dignity and respect on the job.
“There are a lot of people here that have been mistreated,” points out Miguel Angel Perez, a worker in the plant’s warehouse. “As you can tell, 80 percent of the workers here are female. Management doesn’t seem to understand that it’s a people-driven company, and the women workers are the ones that have been treated the worst. When workers want days off, or they have doctor appointments, or they have babysitting issues – the bosses don’t care about that. What management wants is just someone that’ll be here at work – and if they leave or miss a day, management will give them a half-a-point or a point. And once you get to seven points here, they fire you.”
On top of the demands for more sick days and alterations to the unacceptable point system, strikers are calling for better wages and improved pension and retirement benefits. Currently, many workers at the plant make less than $17 an hour – a rate that is particularly offensive given the high cost of living in the Los Angeles area. In negotiations with the company, the union is demanding a fair increase in wages as part of a new three-year contract.
Rich Products is a very large, privately-owned company. Based in Buffalo, New York, the company sells thousands of different types of processed food products in different countries across the world – everything from pizza crust to packaged barbeque meat to ice cream cakes. In terms of its production network, the company employs some 11,000 workers globally, with 7,000 of them working at more than 20 facilities in the United States and Canada, according to the company’s website. In the Los Angeles area, Rich Products has plants in Torrance and Santa Ana in addition to the struck plant in Santa Fe Springs.
Meanwhile, on an international level, Rich Products also maintains production facilities in Mexico and Brazil, as well as other countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The company ranked number 114 on Forbes’s list of America’s Largest Private Companies for 2020 with management reporting some $4 billion in sales for the 2019 fiscal year. Thus the striking workers in Santa Fe Springs are engaged in a struggle with a massive, rapacious corporation that exploits workers all over the world.
At the Santa Fe Springs plant specifically, workers manufacture multiple varieties of ice cream cake that’s sold at many different retail companies, including Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Walmart, Safeway, and other major outlets. Notably, the Santa Fe Springs plant is the company’s only manufacturing facility that makes this particular type of product, according to striking workers.
By all accounts, the production volumes normally maintained at the Santa Fe Springs plant are very high. On many of the plant’s conveyor-belt-style production lines, workers perform their work processes on dozens of cakes per minute – producing thousands of cakes in total per shift.
“These conveyors are running at about 38 cakes per minute,” explains Julissa Marquez, a shop steward that works on the cake decorating line, in an interview featured on a recent episode of the BCTGM Voices podcast. “Our decorating lines go… 13 cakes per minute. Of course, when we were understaffed, [management] would sort of lower the conveyor speed. But it was still relatively fast, where anything that takes two people to do, one person would do it.”
The brutal pace of work inside the plant causes health issues and leads to repetitive strain injuries for many workers. On the picket line, many strikers are quick to tell stories of injuries they sustained on the job that required them to take time off from work.
Beyond this, another grievance that striking workers express on the picket line relates to mandatory forced overtime – an issue that has been at the heart of all of the strikes waged by the BCTGM thus far this year. At the Santa Fe Springs plant, workers often work shifts of as long as 12 to 16 hours. While workers are technically scheduled to work eight-hour days, in actuality, shifts at the plant only end when workers meet the daily production quotas set by management. Needless to say, this situation makes it difficult for the many working mothers employed at the plant to balance their wage labor requirements with the social reproduction work that they perform at home in order to support their families and raise children. Combined with the low amount of sick days and the punitive point system, the mandatory overtime schedule puts many workers in an intolerable situation – a factor that helped set the stage for the outbreak of the strike.
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Since workers walked off the job more than three weeks ago, the strike has significantly reduced production output at the plant. Out of 175 workers in the bargaining unit, only around 30 workers have crossed the picket line. Importantly, every single worker employed as part of the plant’s sanitation crew – the workers tasked with cleaning the production lines and machines that produce the ice cream cakes – has supported the strike. As a result of this, striking workers observe that the lines are not being properly cleaned in accord with safety standards – and, on multiple occasions, the company has had to throw away the pallets stacked with unsanitary cakes produced by scabs.
Since the start of the struggle, workers have maintained an around-the-clock picket line – 24 hours a day and seven days a week – in front of the struck plant. Despite the adversity that comes from being on strike, the workers – who toil elbow-to-elbow beside each other on the plant’s fast-moving production lines – have built a culture of solidarity and mutual support. Workers share meals and warmly welcome visitors that show up to the picket line to lend solidarity. On top of this, workers are receiving support from the broader Los Angeles labor movement. On November 15, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the BCTGM sponsored a rally in front of the struck plant that drew dozens of supporters, including members of multiple other unions in the area. Striking workers have also received international statements of support from workers in Argentina and Mexico. Notably, a group of three worker militants at the big Felfort chocolate factory in Buenos Aires recorded a video declaring “all support to the struggle” of the Rich Products strikers.
“The neighbors, they have been nothing but supportive,” observes Marquez. “The people passing by, we tell them what we’re here for; we ask them for some motivation. And we’ve gotten it… We’ve received food from a few [union] locals. We’ve received donations… And we’re all so grateful for it. It’s keeping us motivated and letting us know that we’re not alone – that we will not be alone, and therefore we have more leverage against the company to keep going.”
The strike at Rich Products is part of a broader uptick of strikes and struggles waged by workers across the country – what the mainstream press and the labor movement has termed “Striketober” and “Strikesgiving.” Within this broader trend, many of the most militant and important strikes have been fought at industrial bakeries and food manufacturing plants and led by the same union to which the Santa Fe Springs strikers belong – the BCTGM. On top of the struggle at Rich Products, the list of strikes waged by the BCTGM thus far this year includes the hard-fought, nearly three-week strike by members of Local 218 at the Frito-Lay snack foods plant in Topeka, Kansas; the victorious strike by some 1,000 workers at Nabisco factories and facilities in five states; and the ongoing strike by 1,400 Kellogg’s cereal production workers in four states. Beyond this, the BCTGM is currently waging a union drive at the Hershey’s Chocolate plant in Stuarts Draft, Virginia, which employs some 1,100 workers and manufactures various types of popular candy products.
Across the country, workers in food processing plants – and workers in manufacturing and other sectors more generally – have grown sick and tired of low pay, deteriorating conditions, abuse by management, mandatory forced overtime, and never-ending speed-ups and hyper-exploitation at the hands of the bosses. The workers at Rich Products are one vital part of this growing struggle, and the entire labor and socialist movement has a duty to come to the support of these courageous workers.
In order to stand in solidarity with the Rich Products strikers, supporters can stop by the picket line in front of the struck plant at 12805 Busch Place in Santa Fe Springs. In addition, the union is now calling on supporters to boycott products from Rich Products and Jon Donaire. Beyond this, supporters can follow the Rich Products strike on social media on the Rich’s Union Members Appreciation Page.
Finally, striking workers have started a GoFundMe account to give strike supporters the opportunity to provide donations to sustain the strikers and their families for the duration of this important, inspiring struggle.