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Photo: BCTGM International Union Facebook
Frito Lay workers in Kansas have struck a deal to go back to work. Photo: BCTGM International Union Facebook

Frito-Lay workers in Kansas end strike with better wages and more time off

The strike lasted 20 days and brought a lot of allegations about the harsh conditions of the plant.

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As the nation continues to recover from the pandemic, PepsiCo recently reported that its quarterly earnings rose more than 20% from a year earlier, as more restaurants demand for its drinks to return.

Frito-Lay, the maker of Cheetos, Doritos, Ruffles and other packaged foods, is a unit of PepsiCo, the New York-based food and beverage giant, and it’s organic revenue grew by 6%

With the increase in people spending more time at home through the quarantine last year, there was a high demand for snacks. Frito-Lay North America brought in $4.5 billion dollars in the second quarter, accounting for 23% of PepsiCo’s revenue. 

The corporation may be doing well, but hundreds of workers at the Frito-Lay factory in Topeka, Kansas, feel burned out and tired of being taken advantage of. 

On Monday, July 5, about two-thirds of the 850 workers at the Topeka factory participated in a walkout that developed into a strike that lasted over 20 days.

Anthony Shelton, International President of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), released a statement on July 12, outlining the intention behind the strike by Local 218 members at the Frito-Lay facility in Topeka.

According to Shelton, workers barely have enough time to get anything done outside of work, including household chores, spending quality time with their families, running errands, or even catching enough sleep each night. 

“This strike is about working people having a voice in their futures and taking a stand for their families," Shelton said.

Hellen Teater, a Frito-Lay factory worker who participated in the strike, told KCUR that working the job leaves her very little time to see her family, as she works every day, for about 84 hours each week, mostly overtime.

Mark McCarter, a 59-year-old palletizer and union steward at Frito-Lay, told VICE that although he’s worked at the facility for more than three decades, he makes just $20.50 an hour and hasn’t received a proper raise in 10 years.

“This is from a Fortune 500 company that is making billions,” McCarter said.

McCarter said that he’ll arrive at work at 7 a.m., expecting do complete his eight hours and leave at 3 p.m., but management will “suicide” him, and he will be forced to do a double shift. He’ll then have to come back for another shift at 3 a.m. 

He told VICE that working at the Topeka factory is exhausting, and simply not a good job. Even as early as 7 a.m, the warehouse is 100 degrees and there is no air conditioning.

“We have cooks in the kitchen on the fryers that are 130 or 140 degrees making chips and sweating like pigs. Meanwhile, the managers have A/C,” he said.

Cherie Renfro, another worker at the facility, criticized the company in a special article for the Topeka Capital-Journal, in which she outed management for giving employees bonuses instead of raises. Renfro also claimed that workers received no hazard pay or other recognition for the risks they took throughout the pandemic.

Renfro said that this “storm” has been brewing for years. She outlined many of the major complaints and injustices, including working in dense smoke and fumes during a fire, not allowing an employee to take time off for bereavement, offering paternity leave to all employees except those at union plants, and more. 

"You have no problem paying for the drug tests, background checks, orientation and training for 350-plus employees that you hired and lost this past year," Renfro wrote. "But you have a problem giving decent living wages to keep loyal employees, already trained, already here."

The company has called the union’s claims “grossly exaggerated,” and stated that union leadership was “out of touch with worker’s concerns.” But the strike came to an end and an agreement was reached.

On Friday, July 23, the rank-and-file of the Local 218 of the BCTGM voted to approve the most recent offer that Frito-Lay management offered, ending the nearly three-week-long strike that received widespread national attention.

The union members approved a contract that would guarantee all employees one day off a week and it includes 4% raises over the next two years. It would eliminate what workers referred to as “suicide shifts,” two 12-hour shifts in a row, with only eight hours off in between.

The deal will also give the union more input on staffing and overtime decisions.

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