About 400 hourly employees at Mondelez International Inc.’s bakery plant in eastern Henrico County have gone on strike, seeking to stop demands the company has made for concessions in contract negotiations and to end what the union calls the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico.
The workers started striking Monday morning at the Laburnum Avenue plant, which makes popular snack foods such as Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Chips Ahoy! cookies.
“They are not treating us right,” said Vincent Carter Sr., who has worked at the plant for 37 years and most recently as a packer. “We worked right through the whole pandemic. We didn’t ever stop working and we kept on working. They are not treating us fair.”
The walkout is part of a strike that members from two other local unions of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union have taken at a Mondelez bakery plant in Portland, Ore., and at a sales distribution center in Aurora, Colo. Those workers went on strike last week.
The one-year contract with the company expired at the end of May. That contract was ratified last year after a previous contract had expired in 2016 and employees continued working under the old agreement.
The contract covers union employees at six Mondelez sites — three bakery plants and three sales distribution centers. The strikes are at just the two plants and one distribution center.
Mondelez, one of the world’s largest snack companies, and the union have been negotiating a new four-year contract since the old one expired. The union membership has not voted on a contract.
“We very disappointed that this development has happened. No one wins in a strike situation,” said Mondelez spokesperson Laurie M. Guzzinati . “The end hope would be that the union would get us new dates so we can continue to negotiate, and negotiate in good faith for both our employees and our business.”
Despite the strike, the plant remained fully operational and continues making cookies and crackers, Guzzinati said.
“I believe that cookies are still being made at the plant and I believe that they were able to keep running some of the lines that were underway at the time of the strike,” she said. “Our business continuity plans kicked in. We have salaried employees and the plant leadership team to ensure that we can continue to supply the products to both our retail customers and consumers.”
Union representatives said Wednesday that no cookies were being made at the plant. “The lines require skilled labor and they just can’t run those lines without our union members in there,” said Keith Bragg, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 358.
The union claims that the company has “ridiculous demand for contract concessions at a time when the company is making record profits.” The company generated global net profit of $3.6 billion in 2020, down from $3.9 billion in the previous year.
“Members across this union and across the country are coming together in solidarity with our striking brothers and sisters to take a stand against Nabisco’s shameful and destructive disregard for workers, their families and the communities in which they live,” the union said in a statement.
The proposals to the contract, the union claims, include wanting a new alternative work schedule for employees, no premium pay for working weekends, and paying health care costs. It also wants the company to stop moving jobs to Mexico.
Mondelez said the union is wrong in its interpretations of the proposed contract. “What this is is rhetoric. The idea that we are taking away overtime is just not true. We’re proposing health care for workers and ... really a number of aspects of the offer that I think would be viewed by the employees as quite good for them.”
Under the plan, the union claims that workers would be required to work 12-hour shifts — not the normal eight hours — and they would not be eligible for overtime pay.
“By changing the work day to a 12-hour work day, the company is now able to consider that as all straight time, so that an eight-hour shift that we used to have, you get time and a half for anything over that,” Bragg said.
“With this way, they’re actually working us 12 hours a day and we’re not getting overtime for the extra four hours.”
Plant workers, he said, now work Monday through Friday and, if they work Saturday or Sunday, they get premium pay.
But the company wants to convert some workers — a small number, Guzzinati said — to 12-hour workdays on a schedule of working seven days over a two-week period of two days on, two days off and the third day on, followed by two days off, two days on and the third day off.
The union says making that change will eliminate overtime for workers.
“That way actually changes our pay substantially,” Bragg said. “With this alternative work schedule and working 12 hours a day, you actually working overtime every day that you work and the only time that you can get the overtime is that you have to work 40 hours before they start paying you overtime.”
Workers would lose about $30,000 to $40,000 annually in overtime pay, Bragg said.
The majority of bakery production lines and employees would remain on the traditional Monday through Friday work schedules, Guzzinati said.
The union also claims that Mondelez wants workers to start paying for some of the health care premiums. Currently workers pay nothing for health insurance benefits.
The company said no change is planned for health care benefits for current employees, including no deductibles or no employee premium contributions. However, changes would be made for new employees that would be similar to health care benefits that the union agreed to under a different contract at the company’s bakery in Naperville, Ill.
The union also claims that Mondelez is outsourcing jobs to its plants in Mexico.
But the company said it has not moved any U.S. jobs to Mexico as part of Mondelez closing two aging plants in New Jersey and Georgia a couple of months ago.
As a result of those closures, the Henrico plant has become a strategic geographic site for the company’s operations on the East Coast, Guzzinati said. For instance, Mondelez is shifting some of its key Oreo production from New Jersey to Henrico.
“So there’s even more Oreo production in Richmond with our ‘line of the future,’” she said. “What this means for Richmond is that we’ve identified and articulated publicly that Richmond is a strategic site for us and in that sense is part of the future for us.”
The local plant, which opened in 1973, had been owned by Nabisco and later by Kraft Foods Inc. It now is part of Mondelez, which was created when Kraft Foods split into two companies in 2012.
In 2014, the company invested almost $50 million in the plant to add a state-of-the-art manufacturing line for Ritz crackers and to modernize some other manufacturing assets.