Topeka Frito-Lay workers win victory

By Erica Eckart

A 20-day strike by 600 Frito-Lay workers, Local 218 in Topeka, Kansas has come to an end after workers negotiated a wage increase, a day off every week, and the end of what workers call suicide shifts, where employees get only an 8-hour break in between shifts. The Workers at the plant are responsible for making, packing and shipping nearly every Frito Lay snack brand. The Local stood together and rejected a proposal made in early July which offered a 2 percent wage increase but did not address the mandated overtime. Some workers were working 12 hour shifts 7 days in a row on a mandatory schedule.

“The striking workers of Local 218 have shown the world that Union working people can stand up against the largest food companies in the world and claim victory for themselves, their families and their communities” says Anthony Shelton, the international president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM). According to a statement from Local 218 Frito-Lay workers, the Topeka plant will now see a 4 percent wage increase to employees in all job classifications over the two-year contract and at least one day off every week along with the end of those “suicide shifts” which the company calls “squeeze shifts”. There was an overwhelming show of support from many locals around the Kansas City and Kansas areas. Local 696 Teamsters of Topeka Kansas, Local 101 (international Union of Operating Engineers), local 1290 The Laborers Union of Kansas City, Kansas, Local 226 Electrical Workers of Topeka (IBEW), Local 304 (also IBEW Topeka, KS), Local 441 Plumbers and Pipefitters, and of course our very own UAW Local 249 Joined by a few of our brothers from Local 31 (GM).

“It’s amazing to see so many Locals come out and come together to support the striking workers of Local 218,’’ says Camalee Hefty, member of Local 249’s CAP Committee.

‘Solidarity is on the rise! The benefits of having unions in America go far beyond the workplace.”

The strike’s conclusion and the workers’ increased wages and time off comes amidst a broader labor reckoning. The contract also comes as President Joe Biden seeks to strengthen the power of labor unions in the country. In April he formed a task force to help bolster union membership and worker organizing.

“PepsiCo, Which owns Frito-Lay, Has 23 different brands that earn 1 Billion dollars annually’’ says Gary Thomas, Chair of the education committee. “They hire thousands of minimum wage workers under brands like KFC and Taco Bell and drive down the wages of Americans every day”.

“One of the biggest aspects of the strike is not even monetary. Says Shirley Mata, Chair of the CAP committee. It’s the ability to spend time with family and not have to work 84 hour work weeks. What’s the purpose of going to work for 84 hours a week if you go home to children who don’t know you or a spouse that doesn’t know who you are anymore because all you do is come home long enough to eat, shower and sleep? I want my kids to understand what we do for them but I also want to make sure they know what an appropriate work/life balance is.”

The Frito-Lay strike appeared to be a popular trend on twitter with comments like “ I stand with Frito-Lay workers on their strikes. Not buying either brand of products for the time being. Hopefully others join in and push for change!’’ Other commenters expressed their solidarity in the same manner by also vowing to not buy Pepsi products or Frito-Lay snacks.

Robert Reich, Professor, American economist, and former secretary of state tweeted “Nothing says break up monopolies like this never-ending list of PepsiCo products to avoid during the Frito-Lay strike”.

The company had called the union’s claims “grossly exaggerated “and said that Union leadership was “out of touch” with workers’ concerns. After being forced to go back to the drawing board to come up with a better offer, the company changed their tune and released a statement contradicting themselves and their previous actions towards their workers stating “We believe our approach to resolve this strike demonstrates how we listen to our employees, and when concerns are raised, they are taken seriously and addressed”.

About two-thirds of the 850 workers at the Topeka factory joined the walkout that began July 5th and ended on July 23rd. Congratulations to our brothers and sisters who stood their ground and held the line to receive better working conditions and a well earned, better pay scale. Thank you to the Group of Local 249 members who drove an hour and a half just to stand in solidarity with our union brothers and sisters of Local 218.