Danny Johnston / AP
Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas are in their third week of strike action, citing so-called “suicide stations” and poor working conditions at the manufacturing and distribution plant at one point where the company’s net sales growth exceeded all of its targets.
Employees say sweltering 90-degree temperatures on the picket line are better than the 100-plus-degree heat that awaits them inside the manufacturing warehouse on any given summer day. They demand the end of mandatory overtime and 84-hour weeks which they say leave little room for a meaningful quality of life. They also look for increases that match increases in the cost of living.
The company, which is owned by PepsiCo, disputes their demands, calling them “grossly exaggerated” and says a recent contract offer handed out earlier this month more than met terms offered by the workers’ union, the Bakery and Confectionery Local 218, Tobacco and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM).
Meanwhile, workers say they want more concessions before returning to the factory. They also called for a nationwide boycott of Frito-Lay products, as well as those produced by PepsiCo, for the remainder of the strike. If successful, the boycott would mean living in a world without Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos, Tostitos and Sun Chips. Temporarily, at least.
A call for the end of “Suicide Shifts”
One of the most controversial issues throughout the bargaining process, according to union leaders, has been the regular use of forced overtime at the factory, resulting in so-called “suicide teams” where “several of the plant’s more than 800 workers are only having an eight-hour break between shifts.”
NPR was unable to reach union officials, but Local 218 chief steward Paul Klemme on Monday described how it worked in a podcast interview on Monday. He said workers who check in from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. are often forced to work four hours of overtime, “then [the company will] turn around and get you back at 3 am. So you only have 8 hours off to come home, shower, see your family, get some sleep and get back to work. “
It’s an unsustainable schedule that was instituted, he says, as a way to delay the resolution of a larger staff shortage of around 100 employees.
In a statement earlier this week, BCTGM International President Anthony Shelton wrote: “The union has repeatedly called on the company to hire more workers and yet, despite record profits, Frito management Lay refused this request.
Frito-Lay says cases of compulsory overtime have been overestimated
Company officials said claims that workers would be forced to regularly double or triple work at the Topeka factory “have been grossly exaggerated.”
The plant, which is one of 30 in the United States, employs about 850 people. Still, officials said, just 20 hours – about 2% – averaged over 60 hours per week.
“Our records show that 19 employees worked 84 hours in a given work week in 2021, 16 of which were because of employees. volunteering for overtime and only 3 being required to work, ”the company said on Monday.
Officials also noted that the latest contract offer, which was rejected by employees on July 3, includes a cap of 60 hours per week and eliminates 8-hour shifts.
The recent contract offer also included a 2% pay rise over the next two years for all job classifications. According to the company: “This is what the union proposed for the pay increases, and Frito-Lay accepted the union’s proposal.
The two sides returned to the negotiating table on Monday.