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Stuck on the Sidewalk With the Memphis Blues Again

Kellogg’s Union-Busting Lock Out

by STEVE PAYNE

“I went to the ‘Gold Palace,’ Kellogg headquarters, last year,” said Trence Jackson, an officer of BCTGM Local 252G. “They had a nice display in their lobby on what they do for African Americans. They also put African Americans, like Gabby [Douglas], on their cereal boxes each February.”

But this February Jackson and his co-workers at the Memphis Kellogg cereal plant face the prospect of spending Black History Month on the picket line. Three months into a lockout, the company has yet to return to the bargaining table.

During local contract negotiations in October 2013, Kellogg demanded the right to hire more part-time and casual employees, at lower pay rates. When workers voted the proposal down, Kellogg locked them out.

Scabs hired through an Ohio union-busting firm now produce Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops.

About 60 percent of the Kellogg workers are black, matching the demographics of Memphis. But only 54 percent of black men in Memphis have jobs. The good-paying jobs at the Kellogg plant are a rarity.

Memphis labor is best known for the sanitation strike of 1968, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to town to support when he was assassinated. The civil rights community and black church leaders helped lead that strike, famous for its “I Am a Man” slogan, to victory.

Today, the civil rights community is again supporting Memphis workers. The NAACP is discussing a potential boycott of popular Kellogg brands, and local Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders have sent two letters to CEO John Byrant. The lockout will be an issue at today’s Martin Luther King Day rally.

When asked how today’s lockout relates to the 1968 strike, Kevin Bradshaw, president of Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 252G, said, “It’s a slap in the face, for everything that’s happened in our city.”

Lockout Improper?

BCTGM has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) contending that Kellogg violated the national contract by attempting to impose new work conditions on the Memphis facility during local negotiations, when these should be properly addressed by national talks.

Workers maintain a 24/7 symbolic picket line at the factory entrance on busy Airport Boulevard. Six to 10 workers hold signs, each taking two shifts a week. Buses filled with scabs enter at a separate entrance, not visible from the picket line.

BCTGM has leafleted at non-union Kellogg facilities around the country, including newly acquired Pringles factories.

On November 8 a 300-person community rally at the plant demonstrated the broad local support for workers, and 8,500 people have signed an online petition.

BCTGM organized a second, smaller rally on January 11. A hundred community members and workers listened to speakers including several elected officials. Most speakers had some connection with the civil rights movement.

From conversations on the picket line, it’s clear workers are holding out hope the NLRB will get them back to work. But Bradshaw says a positive ruling will not end the lockout. At best, it will give the union leverage.

Making Kellogg Union-Free

Bradshaw says the lockout is part of a plan to make Kellogg union-free. “If we win in Memphis, they have to wait until the master contract expires to make these changes,” he said. “If we lose in Memphis, it’s going everywhere.

“Other companies are going to see it. General Mills has already called our international president and said, ‘What are you doing about Kellogg?’ He’s thinking if Kellogg can do it, they can, too.”

The Memphis lockout is only the latest step in a series of increasingly hostile anti-union moves by Kellogg globally. Management recently announced that two union plants in Australia and Canada will close this year, and production will move to non-union facilities.

Kellogg also recently shifted 58 million pounds per year of cereal production from Memphis to Mexico. Bradshaw said workers in Mexico are required to live in a housing compound near the factory and are bused to work. Some have been kidnapped by drug cartels.

In 1996, more than 800 people worked at the Memphis facility. Now it stands just above 200. Much of the work is automated.

The First Domino

In 1968 Memphis sanitation workers walked off the job to protest unsafe working conditions. This January 7, 90 percent spontaneously walked off the job again, refusing to work in record cold weather. Temperatures reached 10 degrees, abnormally cold for the Delta region.

“The wind is out here blowing, and you on the back of a truck picking up garbage,” said AFSCME union leader Gail Tyree. “That’s more important than the lives of these people? I am appalled.”

BCTGM has attempted to maintain solidarity among Kellogg factories. In December members of the Omaha and Battle Creek, Michigan, locals delivered gift cards to children of locked-out workers. Other locals have assessed voluntary dues deductions to support Memphis workers.

All four Kellogg facilities in the United States are covered by a master contract. Each plant also negotiates a local contract. The contract at the Omaha factory expires in May.

Workers on the picket line believe Kellogg is planning to break their union. “They’re going to pit each plant against each other. We’re the first domino in a chain,” said Marvin Rush.

On February 11, 1968—two years before the first observance of Black History Month—Memphis sanitation workers walked off their jobs to stand up for their dignity. They marched through the city streets, facing down police dogs and Mace.

As that date approaches in 2014, Kellogg workers are marching down the same streets, to defend the same principles.

At the January 11 rally, Gail Tyree from the sanitation workers local told the crowd, “We know that what they’re doin’ ain’t right. And I tell you some days I get up I feel like I’m still in the 1960s.”

Steve Payne was an organizer with the Service Employees in Minneapolis for eight years. He now lives in Memphis. He wrote this article for LaborNotes.