We don’t feel like we’re respected,’ Frito-Lay workers say as they strike over pay and long hours

Around 600 workers at a Topeka, Kansas, Frito-Lay plant have been on strike for more than a week, citing low pay and brutal working hours that the company is fighting to preserve in contract negotiations.

“A lot of people here, they barely see their wives, they barely see their husbands, kids. Sometimes a few of us will get stuck here on holidays. We’ll be here during Christmas, we’ll be here during Thanksgiving,” Frito-Lay worker Jurrel Andrew told Daily Kos community outreach organizer Christopher Reeves, who visited the picket line this week. “We’ll be here, you know, regardless of the fact that everybody in the front office except for one or two people doesn’t have to be here. We don’t feel like we’re respected as far as the effort that we put out.

“We spent, what, 13 months of a pandemic with 60% of the workforce the majority of the time, and we made record numbers. And we barely got a thank you, let alone any recognition for that,” Andrew continued. “And then the contract was up in September, and the contract that they offered was, I wouldn’t even say borderline disrespectful, it was completely disrespectful for what these people have done in the last year, let alone the last four years and change that I’ve been here. I’ve seen people pull out amazing feats as far as what they can do in an eight-hour shift or a 12-hour shift.”

Frito-Lay workers on strike in Topeka, Kansas.

Instead of hourly raises, recent contracts have offered workers lump-sum bonuses, Labor Notes reports, with wages going up barely at all for many workers. Box drop technician Monk Drapeaux-Stewart told Labor Notes his pay had gone up only 77 cents in 12 years.

“Milk’s gone up. Meat has gone up. Everything has gone up,” another worker who’s been at Frito-Lay for 30 years told KCUR. “But our wages have stayed the same.”

The company complains that it thought it had a deal with the union—only to find out that the workers were not ready to settle for what their leadership wanted them to accept. “Each member of the union negotiating committee, including the union president, individually committed to supporting the agreement and encouraging Frito-Lay employees to vote in favor of ratifying it,” Frito-Lay said in a statement emailed to Food & Wine. And management says it won’t budge, “Because the union had fully recommended our tentative agreement, we do not anticipate any further negotiations with the union for the foreseeable future.”

What Frito-Lay doesn’t get is that the workers are the union, and the workers rejected the deal and then approved a strike, 353 to 30. An estimated 80% of the workers at the plant are on strike. The deal they rejected would have offered a 2% raise—just 50 cents an hour for many of them—and would not have guaranteed anything approaching reasonable schedules, for workers burned out by outrageous amounts of forced overtime.

Frito-Lay’s stagnant wages and long hours—long, the workers say, in part because the plant has been unable to retain new hires—are reaching a crisis as the company falls behind other employers moving into the Topeka area.

”Fifteen, 20 years ago Frito-Lay had a really good reputation—all you need is a high school diploma and you’ve got this job with good pay and benefits,” Drapeaux-Stewart told Labor Notes. “But slowly all of that has been whittled away.” Meanwhile, Frito-Lay made profits of $5.3 billion last year.

As Andrew told Christopher Reeves, ”It’s time for a change and it’s time that they do something for these people. It’s time that they give them a little bit more of the respect that they deserve, that frankly they’ve earned over the last decade plus.”

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