Nabisco Strikes: A Case Study In Collective Bargaining

Workers at Nabisco bakeries and manufacturing plants across the country have entered their second month of striking for normal working hours and the removal of a proposed health care plan that would harm newer hires. Although a contract between union board members and Nabisco representatives is supposedly in the works, the Nabisco strikes showcase the myriad roadblocks involved in the process of unionizing in America.

The strikes, which began on August 10th in Portland, Oregon, began as a response to a Nabisco plan that would increase work shifts from 12 to 16 hours a week without overtime, increase mandatory work on weekends, and introduce a two-tier healthcare system that would cost significantly more for new hires, potentially creating a rift between the two types of employees. According to Vice, the company had consistently “pushed extra hours onto workers instead of hiring new workers,” and given that the pandemic work schedule already entailed a grueling six- or seven-day work week with 12-hour shifts and no paid overtime, the proposed plan would stretch workers even thinner.

Rusty Lewis, a striking warehouse worker at the Nabisco distribution center in Aurora, Colorado, told Vice that conditions have only deteriorated since he was hired in the 90’s. “It’s gotten worse. It’s gotten horrible. Horrible hours,” Lewis said. “They don’t care about frontline workers. They only care about the almighty dollar. We’re tired of getting stepped on and treated like trash. We’ve had enough.”

The strikes have been supported by local communities, with facilities across the country attracting “hundreds of local workers, community members, and politicians, who have brought sandwiches, donuts, and water” to support the strikers at the picket lines, says Vice. The workers’ strike fund has far exceeded its goal, drawing from thousands of donors around the globe. However, the striking workers have also garnered sustained backlash from Nabisco and its parent company Mondelez, who have threatened workers with legal action and the offshoring of future jobs, have bussed in unqualified workers to work high-skilled jobs in an attempt to break the strike, and have even called in police forces and private strike staffing teams to “evict strikers from a rail line leading into the plant.” This has resulted in the assault of several workers and community members, according to the International Committee of the Fourth International.

Calling in backup is not uncommon for big companies with a vested interest in stymieing local unions’ success. These companies typically bust unions before they can form, with manipulation, blackmail, coercion, and surveillance under the guise of worker education being their usual modus operandi. While these actions are prohibited under statutes of the National Labor Relations Act, according to a 2019 Economic Policy Institute report, “Employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns … [and] employers are charged with making threats, engaging in surveillance activities, or harassing workers in nearly a third of all union election campaigns.” Additionally, private strike staffing companies, like the Huffmaster Crisis Response company that Nabisco has hired to monitor their facilities, are part of a growing industry of strike breakers and consulting agencies created to effectively prevent collective bargaining.

In spite of companies’ and their constituents’ concerted efforts to bust unions and break strikes, correctly-managed unions are an immensely powerful tool for negotiating workers’ rights. By serving as an intermediary between workers and company interests, unions can successfully negotiate beneficial deals with large companies, like the deal currently being discussed with Nabisco as of today. According to Rahna Epting, executive director of policy advocacy group MoveOn, “We need unions because they spark an understanding within the larger zeitgeist of America that when we come together, we are powerful and can pool influence to decide who gets elected and influence their decisions.”

Unionizing and collective organizing have the power to bring about palpable change for workers’ rights, if unionizing and striking are made easier and labor laws are reformed to allow workers to better advocate for themselves. As of today, a new union-friendly act, the Protecting the Right to Organize (P.R.O.) Act, is being passed through Senate. This act would “make it easier for workers to form unions, conduct strikes, and bargain for better wages and working conditions,” C.N.N. reports. But while the P.R.O. Act is necessary to protect workers’ rights, it is not sufficient. According to the Center for American Progress, labor reforms like raising the minimum wage and implementing automatic voter registration, as well as reforming “tax policies that harm workers and indirectly weaken unions, such as those that encourage outsourcing and offshoring,” are sorely needed in order to set a proper expectation for workers’ rights and create a democratic labor system.

Collective bargaining is how we won the 40-hour work week, sick leaves, workplace regulations, and even minimum wage. Things don’t have to stop there. If we empower unions and the workers they represent, we can make even more gains for workers’ rights.