Since October 4, 1,400 workers at the four Kellogg’s plants in the United States have been on strike in response to a two-tier wage system and the company’s efforts to permanently classify workers out of receiving better wages and benefits.
The IWG has been able to intervene at the strike at the Lancaster plant several times over the last month, distributing leaflets and collecting information from the workers there.1 What follows is a brief report and analysis on the situation.
The last month in the United States earned the name ‘Striketober’ because of the relatively large numbers of workers that have gone on strike at the same time in different industries and locations. The pandemic brought in a ‘special situation’ for capitalism, where it had to assure that all of the gears of its machine were functioning properly. Due to the extenuating circumstances of the raging virus, the state could permit no tolerance for any sorts of labor disruptions. The unions were often complicit in this, repeating the lie that ‘we are all in this together’ to their members, and whenever union-led strikes broke out in 2020, they were usually one-day ‘general strikes’ which do a disservice to the term and do nothing to disrupt the functioning of capitalism. But with the callousness of the ruling class in reopening the economy at the expense of our class in terms of both Covid and wages, this slogan was seen by workers for the lie it was. It is now much harder for the unions to sell this lie to their members, now that, one and a half years after the beginning of the pandemic in the US, the overseas bank accounts of the capitalists are stuffed fatter than ever while workers’ meager savings are more depleted than ever.
This is why so many strikes across the US are now breaking out, and in fact have been breaking out over the last few months. The fact is that workers have been pushed to their breaking point. A year and a half of grueling work for the same or lower wages as before, sometimes as their colleagues around them dropped dead or ill from Covid, has produced a realization among many in our class that they do in fact belong to a class, that they do have shared interests, and that they can exercise their power through militant action and withholding their labor. Strikes have been building up since the beginning of the year and to name the most notable examples, in April there began the ongoing strike of Alabama coal miners over wage cuts and draconian company practices. Over the summer the most famous example was probably the Frito Lays workers in Topeka who went on strike in July over low wages, long hours, and outright negligence and disrespect from their bosses when their fellow workers died from the pandemic. This was followed by the Nabisco workers’ strike in August and September over similar grievances, and has been followed by even more through September and October. In late October 10,000 workers at John Deere plants throughout the US went on strike. Around 60,000 IATSE film and television workers, mostly in Hollywood, were scheduled to go on strike in October but didn’t at the last minute, as the union negotiated a contract with the bosses (which many of the workers were rightfully upset with, as they saw it as being nothing more than a reaffirmation of what had existed before).
The IATSE example highlights the insidious role played by the unions in these strikes. Whereas the left-wing of capital loves to glorify unions and pretend as though they are righteous organizations fighting for the liberation of our class, the truth is that most union members probably have a less positive view than leftists of unions. Unions have at best functioned as defensive organizations of the working class, but they have in no way ever been revolutionary, and are inappropriate instruments for communists looking to struggle with the rest of their class for their emancipation. The true role of unions is to function as intermediaries in the sale of the workers’ labor-power to the capitalists. They help negotiate this sale, and in return they provide the capitalists with social peace, working to prevent strikes and labor disruptions while still winning the workers’ support. As workers across the US have slowly learned to exercise their tools of struggle, such as striking, the unions have been quick to get ahead of them and take the leadership of the struggle. This is so that the struggle can be contained within the parameters that the union determines, and so that the struggle doesn’t develop any sort of militancy that would actually threaten capitalism or the union. The unions control the demands, and are also then able to negotiate contracts with the bosses, preventing the workers from exercising their own creative agency in creating demands in these struggles which would lead to the struggles becoming more mature. The UAW in the John Deere workers’ strike for example recently tried to negotiate a contract with the company to quickly put down the strike, but the workers voted it down 55% to 45%, perhaps in a sign of unions (slowly) losing touch with workers.2
The strike of Kellogg’s workers is but one of the many manifestations of this strike wave, and the IWG has luckily had the opportunity to intervene several times at the Lancaster, PA plant over the last month. There we distributed flyers to some of the workers, and also learned about why they had gone on strike and what the thoughts of the workers there were.
One of the largest driving factors in the strike is the two-tier wage system at Kellogg’s. At the company’s plants, workers are classified as either legacy or transitional. Legacy workers are paid at around $33, have their healthcare covered by the company, and have pensions. On the other hand, transitional workers are paid at around $19, have to pay for healthcare costs, and don’t have pensions. Yet these two classifications are not even based on a certain number of years worked. Currently, the only way for a worker to advance from transitional to legacy is for one of the legacy workers to retire. This means that there is not even a clear path for many transitional workers to get out of the precarious wages that they are paid.
The strike was started in response to company plans to eventually scrap the legacy position entirely, by ending the advancement of transitional workers to legacy status. The current ratio of legacy workers to transitional workers is around 7:3, but Kellogg’s wants for all of the workers to be pushed into the lower wage, more precarious transitional classification. The tendency of capitalism in its stage of crisis which we are currently living through is to depress the wages of workers, and try to pauperize them to ever-greater extents, all in an effort to resuscitate falling profit rates. The aims of the Kellogg’s company here are simply another manifestation of that trend, where our class is to be stripped of the crumbs we enjoyed before.
It should also be stated that tiered systems in capitalism, whether in terms of wages or benefits and beyond, are a long-standing system that are used both during and outside of periods of crisis in order to try to bring down wages across the board and divide workers. In 2019 for example, workers at General Motors plants across the United States went on strike against a two-tiered system in which temporary workers didn’t have a path to becoming permanent workers, with the higher wages and benefits that that classification entailed. There are numerous other examples, because this has been a general tactic used by capitalism in order to facilitate an increased exploitation of the working class to feed its dying system. The unions have also played their part in easing the introduction of these tier systems. Playing their role as the mediators in the sale of the workers’ labor-power, the unions sold decreases in the workers’ standard of living, and increases in their precarity, as necessary in order to prevent job losses from factories being shipped overseas.
The strike appears to be going in the workers’ favor. The company had begun construction in 2019 of a warehouse nearby the plant, where they could store excess products. Many of the workers at the plant however knew the real reason that the plant had been constructed, which was to provide the company with enough surplus cereal in the event that a strike occurred, as rumblings over the two-tier system had been stirring whisperings of a strike over a long period. However due to the increased demand brought on by the pandemic the warehouse was never used, and so production and sales from US plants ground to a halt. In addition, some of the most zealous strikers are legacy workers, who are not the ones that will directly benefit from the transitional workers getting a path to legacy status. This is a powerful demonstration of the solidarity among the workers here.
However the situation is not rosy for the workers, and many, especially the transitionals who are often younger and have less saved up, have in many cases resorted to finding precarious work, such as for Uber, in order to pay the bills over the course of the strike. In addition, the company has begun its process of counterattack in the class struggle. In the media, the company lies to bourgeois news organizations and tells them that workers have no reason to strike, because of the fact that workers in 2020 supposedly had an average salary of $120,000.3 Speaking to the workers there, none of them knew how the company had arrived at that calculation. Maybe they factored in the CEO’s $11.5 million salary.4 More concretely, the company has also brought in non-union labor from the town to get the plant working again. The striking workers are confident that these temporary replacements will not save the company, due to the difficult nature of the Kellogg’s workers’ jobs. However, the continued use of strike-breaking labor does represent an obstacle to the strike’s future.
Kellogg’s is pushing through with its plans to lower their workers’ living standards and remove what little securities their workers already have despite the fact that the company enjoyed immense profits throughout the pandemic, as people quarantined at home had a greater demand for cereal. According to Food Business News, “net income at Kellogg in the first quarter was $368 million, equal to $1.07 per share on the common stock, up 6% from $347 million, or $1.01 per share, in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. Net sales were $3.58 billion, up 5% from $3.41 billion the year before”.5 Unfortunately however, the fact that the company has raked in so much profits is a fact used by the BCTGM union (Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers) which ‘represents’ the Kellogg’s workers to push forward their class collaborationist propaganda. At a union rally held on October 9th outside of the Lancaster plant, the union representatives and representatives from other unions frequently talked about how it was fine for the company to be raking in record profits, or for the CEO, Steve Cahillane, to be making millions, but that the company and CEO should just share some more of that wealth. They repeated the typical lie that ‘what is good for the company is good for the worker’ when in reality what is good for the company is predicated on the exploitation of the workers, as the only way for the company to get profits is to extract greater amounts of surplus value from the members of our class. This is a sort of thinking that we must struggle against within these sites of struggle, because it depoliticizes the struggle and makes it seem as though these issues are caused by certain individuals being just a bit too greedy, when in reality it is the capitalist system that compels the further worsening of our class’ living standards.
The paralyzing role of the union in the maturation of this struggle is seen not just in these sorts of ideological messages, but also in its limiting of the demands and militancy of the workers here. The union represents the strike as being solely about the two-tier wage system. However, speaking to the workers on strike at the Lancaster plant, we came away with a different conclusion. The workers at Kellogg’s are upset because of the fact that they have worked continuously throughout the pandemic, many as transitionals getting paid less than their counterparts working right next to them doing the same work, for 12-16 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. There are complaints over the lack of holidays for workers, as well as over scheduling. Workers are able to “voluntarily” choose to work extra shifts which result in those 16 hour days, but if they don’t, then they often get put on times that they don’t want to work. Because of this, many simply make the conclusion that it's better that they pick their poison, than have it picked for them. However, the union has limited the demands solely to the vague demand that workers be given a path “within reason” to achieving legacy status. Speaking to a representative of the union on the cold night of October 23 at the strike, he said that the union didn’t necessarily want to do away with the two-tier wage system in the strike, and that they were open to negotiations on a contract which simply left that ‘reasonable path’, whatever that may be. So even when the strike is limited by the union to just one demand, that demand is watered down so much that it means essentially nothing. And because the union has assumed the leadership of this strike (only because they were forced to: in 2020 workers wanted to go on strike, but the union held them back because of the pandemic and the supposed need for ‘essential workers’ to play their part in keeping capitalist society alive), they get to the drag the workers along with their putrid reformist demands which really end up changing nothing.
In reality, the Kellogg’s workers’ strike could be dramatically broadened and generalized. While it is noble that legacy workers are sticking their necks out for the transitional workers, as in this strike they have nothing directly to gain with the current demands, the workers should make demands that benefit both of them as well. The long, exhausting hours faced by the workers are a point which the workers could organize around. In addition, the striking workers could reach out to the labor that Kellogg’s has brought in to break the strike, as well as the workers who work at Kellogg’s plants outside of the United States, and even other workers in Lancaster or other plant locations.
With the first option, this would demonstrate an understanding that these workers that have been brought in by the company are only crossing the picket line because they too are oppressed by class society, and are forced to sell their labor-power to survive. One way to do this would be to block the entrances that allow the busloads of the strike-breaking workers into the plants. Doing this could create the potential for fraternization between the two groups of workers, and the potential winning of the allegiance of the workers that had been brought in. This is unfortunately an action that the union will not take, because blocking the entrance is illegal, and unions are bound by the parameters of bourgeois legality. So it will have to be the workers’ own initiative outside of the union framework that does such an action.
With the second action, that of reaching out to workers who work at Kellogg’s plants outside of the US, this would have the potential of truly bringing Kellogg’s to its knees. There are 33,000 Kellogg’s workers internationally, meaning that US workers at just 1,400 are a fraction of Kellogg’s total workforce. The conditions that Kellogg’s workers work in in other countries, such as Mexico, are even worse than in the United States. This means that workers in these countries that work for Kellogg’s have even less to lose, and with the support of their fellow workers in the US, could be confident in going on strike as well. The unions, divided by national borders, are also unable to carry through with this.
The third option is a unique one which also has potential, that of making contact with other workers in Lancaster, or other cities that have Kellogg’s plants. Workers across the United States are feeling buoyed by the reports of seeing their fellow workers strike in other locations, and having striking workers reach out to them for support with strikes of their own would surely be something that would boost their confidence to take such actions. If workers at Kellogg’s in Lancaster reached out to other workers in the city, and organized with them along common class issues, such as long hours and low pay to name the basic ones, then not only would the strike be incredibly strengthened in this area, but the class would also gain valuable experience. It would be an experience which could have the potential to heighten the maturity of the class struggle, because such an action would necessarily require going beyond the union form. This would mean workers organizing on their own as a class, rather than having their agency and control exercised by the unions.
Ultimately, the Kellogg’s strike offers much for our class to learn from, in the form of both its strengths and its weaknesses. Its largest strength is probably the fact that legacy workers feel a sense of solidarity with transitional workers that is strong enough to compel them to strike without even acquiring any immediate benefits themselves. Its largest weakness however comes down to it being led and directed by the union, which always saps workers’ militancy and pacifies our class in our moments of struggle. Workers at Kellogg’s should go beyond demands about the two-tier wage system and organize around general grievances as well, such as the long hours and work-weeks that workers at Kellogg’s are subjected to. Kellogg’s workers should also work to broaden and generalize the struggle by reaching out to the workers that the company has brought in to break the strike, workers at international Kellogg’s plants, and other workers in Lancaster. These actions which are aimed at raising the maturity of the struggle ultimately require a break with the union framework. In contrast to the union vision of top-down representation and the bourgeois institutionalization of labor disputes, we offer our vision of independent class action, where workers take the struggle into their own hands by forming strike committees or whatever other instruments they decide to, a method of struggle which allows for the more organic growth of class consciousness in our class. We offer our vision of delegation, not representation, where workers’ councils that elect immediately revocable delegates who vote in line with what the council has decided are what administer society. It is only this mode of struggle, this model of society, that has the potential to pose a serious political alternative to the current oppressive and exploitative society, capitalism, that we are forced to live under. The only alternative to this system is communism - a society without classes and money, without states and borders, and without exploitation. The alternative won’t build itself. It requires the commitment of militants to the struggle of the working class, to involving ourselves daily in the activities of our class. Are you in?
JC and IM
Internationalist Workers’ Group