National message

Kellogg strike sends national message

battle stream – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders told a crowd in Battle Creek on Friday that the ongoing strike against the Kellogg Co., which is based here, sends a national message to corporate leaders that workers want dignity.

“In the richest country in the history of the world, we need to shake up workers fairly,” the independent senator from Vermont told hundreds of people who gathered outside in front of a building in Kellogg offices.

The visit by Sanders, a national progressive politician, was the latest example of growing attention to the strike that began 73 days ago on October 5, involving 1,400 workers in four cities and a major grain company that manufactures brands like Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies.

A new tentative agreement between Kellogg and the union representing the workers was announced Thursday and will be voted on Sunday. The new offer of a five-year contract includes cost-of-living adjustments and a $1.10 per hour raise for all employees. Last week, the union overwhelmingly rejected an earlier offer from the union that included 3% raises, but not all employees would have received cost-of-living adjustments.

US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks during a rally for striking Kellogg workers at Farmers Market Square in Battle Creek, Michigan on December 17, 2021.

National attention was on Friday with Sanders reading a letter from President Joe Biden to workers.

“My message to you is to keep the faith,” Biden wrote.

Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Milling Workers International Union have demanded better working conditions and a fairer pay structure for employees while criticizing a two-tier system that pays some less workers. Sanders said he heard Kellogg employees tell him they were on the job for 50, 60 and 120 days in a row.

Todd Manusos, 43, who has worked at the Battle Creek plant for 24 years, said he has already worked 120 days in a row.

“There is mandatory overtime every day, every week,” Manusos said after the senator’s speech. “They inflate some salaries there and then they use that against us.”

Asked to respond to the Sanders event on Friday, the Kellogg Co. shared a statement from Thursday about its tentative agreement with the union.

The average 2020 salary for the majority of hourly employees was $120,000, the company said. The tentative agreement includes a pay raise for all employees, the statement said.

“We value all of our employees. They have enabled Kellogg to provide food for Americans for more than 115 years,” said Steve Cahillane, Kellogg’s President and CEO. “We hope our employees will vote to ratify this contract and return to work.”

Workers who spoke at the Sanders event lambasted him. Manusos described it as “garbage”.

“They’re trying to get a quick catch because we’re gaining momentum,” Manusos said.

Earlier this week, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, sent a letter to Cahillane asking Kellogg to return to the bargaining table. The strike involves factories in four states: Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Michigan.

On Dec. 10, Biden released a statement that he was “deeply troubled” by reports that Kellogg would permanently replace striking union workers in their labor negotiations.

It would be “an existential attack on the union and the jobs and livelihoods of its members,” the president said.

“I urge employers and unions to engage fully in the difficult task of resolving their differences at the bargaining table in a way that fairly advances the interests of both parties,” Biden said.

Bobby Leddy, spokesman for Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, said the administration is happy to see negotiations continue to ensure people are paid well, treated fairly and can provide a good life for their families.

“Governor Whitmer stands squarely on the side of the working people of Michigan who are kicking their butts day in and day out to get things done in our state,” Leddy said. “Michigan was built by dedicated, blue-collar workers and union members, and we will continue to be a strong ally in these efforts to put workers first.”

Whitmer also sent supplies to the picket line, including 470 pairs of hand warmers and four cases of water earlier this week.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont rallies with striking Kellogg Co. workers at the Farmers Market Square in Battle Creek on December 17, 2021. The self-identified Democratic Socialist told the crowd: "In the richest country in the history of the world, the workers must be shaken fairly."

On Friday, Sanders thanked Kellogg workers and said he wanted America to know their stories. Working 50 or 120 days in a row is “insane,” Sanders said.

“What that does to people, to your life, to your family is hard to know,” Sanders said. “But one thing I do know is that when people make that kind of sacrifice, when their families make that kind of sacrifice, you don’t treat those workers with disrespect and contempt.”

He spoke for about 15 minutes, saying Kellogg’s two-tier system was an example of corporate greed. Kellogg workers had fed the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.

Across the aisle, the Republican Party of Michigan lambasted Sanders and his visit to Michigan.

“Our working class is being decimated by the new taxes he passed on top of the worst inflation in over 25 years, the result of progressive policies he supported,” said Michigan GOP communications director Gustavo Portela. “It’s time to end the grandstanding and get to work on lowering taxes and making things more affordable for everyone.”

Some of those in the crowd on Friday were expected to see Sanders, they said. Others were there to publicly show their support for the workers. Joe Dewey, 51, of Battle Creek, said he attended the event because he supported Sanders and the unions.

The feeling in Battle Creek about the ongoing strike is “one of sadness and anger,” said Dewey, who added that there were concerns about the layoffs.

“The economy has been steadily deteriorating since 1997,” Dewey said. “If that happens, we’ll end up like Flint. I’m already scared of it like that.”

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The Associated Press contributed.