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Weeks-Long Strike Ends After Topeka Workers Approve New Agreement With Frito-Lay

20 year Frito Lay veteran Chris Ware protests outside the plant in Topeka
Frank Morris
20-year Frito-Lay veteran Chris Ware protests outside the plant in Topeka.

The company made concessions, but the workers found themselves in a much stronger position than any in recent history to get the workplace and the wages they were bargaining for.

The people who make your Cheetos, Fritos, and Ruffles can put in some seriously long hours doing it.

“I am a very hard-working woman,” says Hellen Teater, standing on the picket line across from the Frito Lay plant in Topeka this week. “I work like hell.”

She said her job leaves little time to spend with her family.

“Because I've been working seven days a week,” Teater said, “like, 84 hours a week.”

Teater is mostly satisfied with the money she makes. She makes double her normal 40 hours, $20-an-hour wage with all the overtime she puts in.

On Friday, the rank-and-file of Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union voted to approve the latest offer their leadership brought from management, ending a nearly three-week-long strike that made national headlines.

The contract approved by union members would guarantee one day off a week and includes 4% raises over the next two years. It would also end what workers call “suicide shifts,” two 12-hour shifts, with only eight hours off in between.

The company made concessions, but the workers found themselves in a much stronger position than any in recent history to get the workplace and the wages they're bargaining for.

Eighty-hour weeks and no raises

Striking workers said Frito-Lay routinely forced workers to pick up extra hours and skip scheduled days off. Even those with seniority, like Marlon Smith.

“I've been here 22 years,” he said, “and I still get forced for seven days a week."

Eighty-four-hour workweeks have made headlines, but the company said those are very rare. In a statement, Frito-Lay said only about 2% of its Topeka workers average more than 60 hours a week.

But workplace conditions aren’t the only beef worker had with Frito-Lay. Some employees have had bonuses or pay increases, but other employees say they haven’t had a raise in nine years.

The proposed agreement would address that with 4% raises over the next two years.

But even with a new contract approved, Frito-Lay employees may find other opportunities as other companies try to recruit disgruntled workers.

Workers have more leverage now, and signs, literal signs, of that are impossible to miss.

Brad Wiese.jpg
Frank Morris
Frito Lay worker Brad Wiese shows off a new billboard advertising job opportunities for unhappy Frito Lay employees

“They just put, they just put this up last week. We were out here, we watched them put it up,” said Frito-Lay worker Brad Wiese, gesturing toward a billboard across from the plant near the picketers.

“It says, ‘The J M Smackers company now hiring multiple positions shift and pay rates, comprehensive benefit packages.’ So that’s pretty much telling us, ‘Hey, come on out!’,” he said.

Wiese said at least half a dozen companies are actively recruiting workers. He said at least two workers at the plant left the picket lines for those other jobs.

Wiese said support for strikers was, well, striking. Many people honked in support driving by the picket line. And the strike garnered national news coverage.

Chris Ware, who’s worked more than half his life at the plant, almost 20 years, says the workers have never held a stronger hand.

“We definitely have leverage right now,” says Ware. “With all the support that we’re getting globally, man, now’s time. Now’s the time.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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