By ERNIE GOTTA
“Suicide shifts” — About 800 workers at Frito-Lay in Topeka, Kan., have been on strike for three weeks. They’ve garnered tremendous support from around the country and are making headlines everywhere. Their many demands include issues around quality of life, especially when it comes to time off to rest and be with their families. Workers are demanding an end to “suicide shifts” that only allow for an eight-hour break between shifts.
Chief Steward Paul Klemme of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) Union Local 218 explained on a union podcast, “Workers who clock in for a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift are often forced to work four hours of overtime, then the company will turn you right around and bring you in at 3 o’clock in the morning. So you only have eight hours off to get home, shower, see your family, get some sleep and get back to work.”
These inhumane conditions must end. We send our solidarity and support the workers’ call for a boycott of Frito-Lay products. Don’t cross the picket line! To get a better understanding of just how awful the conditions are from a worker’s perspective, we are reprinting a letter from Cherie Renfro, a Frito-Lay striking worker, that was first published in The Topeka Capital-Journal:
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.
Here are a few examples:
• Making us work in dense smoke and fumes during and after a fire because as you stated, “It’s just smoke.”
• When a co-worker collapsed and died, you had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going.
• During the COVID-19 lockdown, a co-worker’s father passed away in another state. You told her since there wasn’t a funeral she didn’t qualify for bereavement time. She had to take off two of her own days to grieve.
• We worked during the entire COVID-19 quarantine while office personnel worked from home. We didn’t get hazard pay, bonuses, rewards or recognition.
• We worked through the deep freeze struggling to keep warm and everything running, getting forced over and into the weekend again, while an upper manager received a recognition award for “his dedication to come in on his weekend to keep our plant running.”
• How you fill our warehouse with carts of cardboard and product blocking walkways, exits and work areas. When we point out it’s not safe, you shrug your shoulders and say, “It’s push week.
• How you bring in inexperienced temporary drivers leading to two injuries, one of them major, and numerous accidents, including a hit to a major structure beam, bending it and damaging the forklift.
• The fact you offer paternity leave to all employees except those at union plants.
• Your negotiator told us that it isn’t that Frito-Lay can’t afford to give us raises, it’s that he is there to protect the stockholder’s investments.
Meanwhile you have held down our wages year after year by refusing to give us cost-of-living raises. One classification got a total of 20 cents in a decade. We no longer offer competitive wages to balance the stress of unpredictable long hours—12-hour days, seven days a week.
The contract you offered actually covered two years, only one of which gave a 41-cent raise and you bragged that it’s the highest raise you’ve given in years.
You have no problem paying for the drug tests, background checks, orientation and training for 350-plus employees that you hired and lost this past year. You fly in temporary workers, paying for hotel rooms, car rentals, wages, food and more—training for people who have no investment here.
But you have a problem giving decent living wages to keep loyal employees, already trained, already here. You were a fool to not do more to keep your employees from walking out that door because many are never coming back, not with a job market so rich right now.
After numerous informational pickets and contract offers that we voted down, you said: “That’s it! Take it or leave it!” So it was time to do a strike vote.
First, you allowed us time off to vote if we signed a sheet. Then at the last minute, you took down those sheets and said no one is allowed time off to vote.
Your threats and bully tactics only fuel our fire. You have pushed us into a corner and we came out swinging.
And now you’re “shocked”?
Photos: Evert Nelson / The Capital-Journal