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A supermarket shelf at a Kings Food Market in Midland Park, New Jersey filled mostly with Frito-Lay brands of chips. (Photo: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

Workers, Businesses Show Support for Striking Frito-Lay Workers in Kansas

"The importance of solidarity and collective bargaining is paramount," said one local magazine hosting a fundraiser for strikers.

Brett Wilkins

Support and solidarity from community members and labor advocates around the world are buoying the spirits of hundreds of Frito-Lay workers who walked off the job at a Kansas plant this week over what they say are intolerable forced overtime hours, low pay, and other alleged abuses.

Around 600 employees began striking just after midnight Monday at snack giant Frito-Lay's Topeka plant, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal. They have been picketing outside the plant ever since, holding signs with messages including "Mandatory Overtime—Where is my family time?" and "Cost of living goes up while our pay stays the same."

Another read, "It's not easy being greedy"—a riff on animated company mascot Chester Cheetah's slogan, "It's not easy being cheesy"—accompanied by an image of Chester running off with bulging bags of money.

The workers—members of Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union—voted last month to strike for the first time in the plant's nearly 50-year history. Last weekend, rank-and-file members voted to reject a proposed two-year agreement negotiated between Frito-Lay parent company PepsiCo. and Local 218 leaders.

"When I started 25 years ago, this was an outstanding place to work," longtime plant employee Rodney North told the Capital-Journal while striking. "I was proud to say I worked at Frito-Lay. Now, I'm ashamed."

North said Frito-Lay "works its employees to death," while decrying forced overtime. "People have families," he said outside the plant. "They want to live at home, not here."

Striker Jurrel Andrew told the Capital-Journal that "it sucks standing next to these guys sometimes when they tell me, 'Hey I haven't seen my daughter all week,' or 'My wife is screaming at me over the phone when I don't come home when I'm supposed to.' It's demoralizing."

Some local businesses expressed solidarity with the striking workers in a variety of ways, including distributing food and water to people on the picket lines. A regional magazine, 785, has launched a relief fund that aims to raise $24,000 to cover striking workers' expenses.

"The importance of solidarity and collective bargaining is paramount, and we understand the financial hardship many will endure while fighting for fair labor rights," 785 said.

Brass Rail Tavern, Topeka's oldest bar, announced on Facebook: "To show our love to our brothers and sisters of Frito-Lay we will not be serving Frito-Lay products, including Pepsi, until they have [come] to an agreement."

Frito-Lay said it was "shocked" by workers' decision to strike.

In a Capital-Journal op-ed, Frito-Lay employee Cherie Renfro wrote: "So you are 'shocked' that your employees voted to strike for the first time at this plant. I'm shocked you are so out of touch with your employees you didn't see this coming. This storm has been brewing for years."

"It began when you started giving lump sums instead of raises, when you lowered wages for new hires coming in, when you supported an iron-fisted management that has created a toxic work environment," Renfro wrote.

"When a co-worker collapsed and died, you had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going."
—Cherie Renfro, striking Frito-Lay worker

"When a co-worker collapsed and died, you had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going," she continued, listing more than 10 grievances including allegedly being forced to work during a fire, a "deep freeze," and the Covid-19 pandemic, the latter without "hazard pay, bonuses, rewards, or recognition" while managers worked from home.

"Your threats and bully tactics only fuel our fire," asserted Renfro. "You have pushed us into a corner and we came out swinging. And now you're 'shocked?'"

According to World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), BCTGM signed a contract in January 2016 that slashed pay from $20 an hour to $15 an hour.

"Due to a high turnover rate, Frito-Lay decided to increase their full-time wage to $18 an hour. It is now 2021, and workers have lost two dollars an hour over the last six years, from 2015 to 2021," one worker told the site.

WSWS reports:

Due to a shortage of workers willing to work for the near poverty wages, the BCTGM has also allowed the company to impose almost limitless mandatory overtime, including what workers call the 'Suicide Shift.' Under this abusive scheme, management tells workers after their eight-hour shift to work another four hours and to return to work four hours early the next day. This means two consecutive 12-hour shifts, with only eight hours off in between, minus travel time to and from work, which could be hours.

If a worker turns down an overtime shift, they can be docked attendance points, preventing them from taking time off without repercussion or transferring to higher-paying positions. Because of these schedules, some workers are forced to sleep in their cars between shifts. The relentless pressure and time away from home has also led to the breakup of marriages and several suicides.

Meanwhile, according to a 2020 annual report (pdf) on the previous year, PepsiCo's compensation to CEO Ramon Laguarta topped $16 million, while the company increased its dividend "for the 47th consecutive year in 2019, returning $8.3 billion in cash to shareholders through $5.3 billion of dividends and $3 billion in gross share repurchases."

A striking Volvo Trucks employee in Virginia and member of the Volvo Workers Rank-and-File Committee told WSWS that "we've talked to teachers, school bus drivers, Mack Truck workers, autoworkers, and Amazon workers. We all need to link up. The top pay at Frito-Lay is only around $22. No one can live on that."

"We all need to come together and bring this thing to a head," he added. "We should be fighting together."

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