A strike at Nabisco is testing the power of unions in the pandemic

Nabisco workers are striking.
Nabisco workers are striking.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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Since Aug. 10, about 1,000 union workers across five states who make Ritz crackers and Oreo cookies for Nabisco have been on strike over contract disagreements.

As America’s appetite for snack foods has grown during the pandemic, Mondelez International, Nabisco’s parent company, wants some employees to work longer shifts to make more high-demand items. Union workers oppose the new schedules, saying their hours are already long and the change would take away time spent with their families.

Over the last 18 months, waves of workers have gone on strike, from Instacart workers turning off their apps to Amazon fulfillment workers walking off. Last month, a 19-day strike with Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas, resulted in a negotiated wage increase and a day off every week, ending forced overtime and 84-hour work weeks.

Labor unions have increased power

The heightened employee activism in part stems from the pandemic, where workers have had to work in more unsafe conditions or with less favorable schedules. Now, with a tight labor market, where employers have been offering bonuses and higher wages to attract workers, labor unions may have the power to ask for more.

“Workers have more power to demand more rights, and unions have more power to demand more from employers like Nabisco,” says Patricia Campos-Medina, the executive director at The Worker Institute at Cornell University. “So, in a tight labor market, when society is more acutely aware of the value of essential workers, unions and workers have the power to demand more.”

At its Nabisco factories, Mondelez wants to implement “alternative work schedules” on select high-demand production lines where employees work 12 hours shifts for three to four days. Workers assigned to these lines would have a three-day weekend every other week. Since the start of the pandemic, Nabisco workers say they have been putting in at least 13 hour shifts—and some have had enough.

“They just care about putting out cookies and production, they don’t care about anything else,” says Jesus Jimenez, a packing worker in Portland, Oregon, who has been working for the company for 10 years, and is president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers International Union local 364. In the second quarter, Mondelez reported a revenue increase of 12% from the same period last year.

“We remain committed to bargaining in good faith to reach new contracts for our employees,” said Laurie Guzzinati, a Mondelez spokesperson.

Some members who are picketing already have part-time or full-time jobs that pay well, says Jimenez. He says he receives emails and texts for jobs that pay at least $20 an hour, with benefits and bonuses, and are close to his house. “There’s way too many jobs right now…we might lose good members that are going to be hard to replace,” says Jimenez. “The experience that you have that counts a lot—the experience we have working those machines, working the department, mixing and baking, even packing.”

How did Covid-19 change union bargaining?

The current environment also means workers who don’t like their jobs can find better ones—without a union. “While the pandemic has made unions much more directly relevant to workers…I don’t know how long that effect is going to last,” says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

For unions, the stakes could not be higher, with the pandemic having a direct effect on jobs. Union enrollment has been on a decline for decades: Just 10.8% of US employees are in unions and only 6.3% of private sector workers are unionized, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It’s more difficult to get new hires to join the union,” says Pollak. There’s been scrutiny around the costs of unionization dues and political involvement, for instance, she says.

Responding to concerns of workers during the pandemic, unions have taken on new responsibilities by advocating for more PPE or pushing for more Covid-19 safety standards. As companies try to find ways to cut costs by extending work shifts, unions have also taken on the role of advocating for mental health resources.

As seen with recent failures like the Amazon union vote and attempts to unionize gig workers in New York, unions have struggled to expand, says Pollak. “You just see huge ambivalence among workers about unions and their role,” she says. That said, there has been recent momentum for white-collar unions among tech companies like Kickstarter and Google, museums, and at media companies.

The recent infrastructure bill, which would create jobs in areas like construction and public services, could also bolster union membership, according to labor experts.