The 39th Annual Convention of the International Bakery, Confection, Tobacco & Grain Millers Union (BCTGM) issued special invitations to Tennessee District 86 State Rep. Barbara Cooper and SCLC Memphis President Rev. Dwight Montgomery to attend the event in Las Vegas.
The convention highlighted the Memphis workers’ successful fight to return to work after a nine-month lockout. Cooper and Montgomery were honored for their work on behalf of the locked-out workers.
Montgomery said trying to help the workers revealed something that really made him angry.
“When you have a city such as ours where people are being criticized for being on welfare, and here are these workers locked out illegally and you are called on to support them but do not, I think that reveals that something is wrong in Memphis,” he said.
“And I mean these churches with good money. I’m not going to call any names, but it means nothing to have a large sanctuary, be living in a beautiful home, run around bragging about how many members your church has or how expensive a car you drive when people are going through what these workers went through, standing in the rain and the cold and yet you do nothing. Thank God they have gone back to work.”
While saying that it is important to not let unions down, Cooper challenged the unions to become more connected with the community to fight poverty.
“It’s readily evident that we cannot depend on corporations to do what’s right all the time for workers and their families. The Kellogg’s lockout showed the three main platforms that the corporations have in these situations,” said Cooper.
“First, using the media to create a negative slant about the worker’s concerns. Second, corporate greed. And third, elected officials that support corporate greed. This country was built on labor. Why do we want to mistreat the people that are holding up this country – leaving families hungry. We are only asking for fair wages and safe working places. Dr. King said ‘truth crushed to the ground will rise up,’ and that’s what the Kellogg’s workers have proven. They were risking their families future by standing up for their rights.”
Where things stand
Favorable court rulings have come down for the workers and the Kellogg Company, but the bottom line is that the regular employees returned to the jobs on Monday (August 11th).
The rulings do not mean that the issues leading to the walkout are over. Kellogg must continue the current agreement at least until Oct., 2015, according to a ruling by Judge Samuel H. Mays of the Western District of Tennessee.
The union highlights its position on its website and includes this reference:
“The lockout, which has deprived the employees of their pay and health insurance, has been ongoing for nine months. The administrative process may continue for many months and even years to come. To allow the lockout to continue through that period would place significant hardship on employees in furtherance of Kellogg’s bargaining position, which (the NLRB) has reasonable cause to believe is unlawful. That would undermine the remedial powers of the Board.”
Kellogg’s Kris Charles cites a separate ruling by an administrative law judge as proof that the company was right in its position. Via email, he informed The New Tri-State Defender of the company’s current posture.
“An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Memphis ruled late Thursday in favor of Kellogg Company, concluding that the lockout there is lawful and that our proposals are appropriate for supplemental – or local – negotiations,” Charles wrote.
“At this time, however, our number one priority is safely returning our Memphis employees to work and helping them manage through that transition. Our business challenges have only increased – and there is much work to be done by both parties – but it is our belief that the immediate path forward will be determined in partnership with the union and we expect that our good-faith efforts, in this regard, will be matched by theirs.”
‘The goal is to be fair to all’
Cooper was saluted for her organizing efforts to increase community awareness of the issues behind the lockout. Montgomery, who was asked to open the convention with an invocation, was honored for his effort with the faith-based community. Montgomery petitioned for and delivered financial support from the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association for the union’s hardship fund.
Local BCTGM President Kevin Bradshaw said Cooper and Montgomery provided invaluable support.
“We were brought together by a wonderful man, Mr. Lorenzo Banks, who recently passed. He was one of the original sanitation workers from the 1968 strike and he called both of them and said we needed their help to get our message out. And he was right. They were very effective.”
Banks made the call from his hospital bed “back in December,” Bradshaw recalled, “and when he got out of the hospital in January he called me and made sure we got together with our community coordinator, Ron Baker, and we all just clicked on what was ahead of us. Not just about Kellogg’s, but how this city has become overly pro-business.”
Bradshaw said the Kellogg’s situation is a lesson for citizens across the nation.
“People have a misconception about unions, saying that we try to break companies, but that’s not true. What we faced at Kellogg’s illustrates the value of collective bargaining. I attended the Jobs & Justice For All convention in Washington, D.C. a few months ago and it’s happening all over the country,” he said.
“Nobody’s saying you have to pay everybody $20 an hour. We expect companies to thrive and make a lot of money, but people just wanted to be treated right. People need to be treated right and paid fairly, not oppress people and fine them for every little violation you can come up with.”
‘Give the people a voice’
Cooper was asked whether she was afraid that Kellogg might shut the plant down.
“If so, Tony The Tiger will be dead and we’ll have to go back to eating more oatmeal and grits,” she said. “But no, the company needs the workers just as bad as the workers need the company. The goal is to be fair to all.”
Montgomery, who credited Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association President Luther Williams for his work in garnering support for the locked-out workers, said it was exactly the type of issue that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a national SCLC founder, would have supported.
“But I have to express how profoundly disappointed I am. SCLC sent letters to some of the larger churches of all faiths, black and white, and the only responses were from the BMAA and Pastor Bartholomew Orr of Brown Baptist Church.”
After commending the workers for their fortitude to stick to what’s right, Montgomery, talked about what he calls “Robbing The Hood.”
“You have corporations all over America wanting to upsize their salaries and downsize workers’ salaries, paying women less, busting unions, cutting the benefits of persons who have earned benefits. The faith institutions and unions joining together can stop this trend.”
The mutual community effort has led to a new local umbrella civil rights coalition called the Coalition for Organizational Protection of People and Equal Rights (COPPER), Bradshaw said.
“We requested by resolution that the BCTGM support it, and we have over 100,000 members. We also have the vocal support of the AFL-CIO, and they have 12 million members. Our goal is to become a link for organizations representing workers to better link with their communities. Not to set the agenda, but to give the people a voice.”
Meanwhile, an earlier statement to media by Kellogg spokesperson Charles points to the company’s perceived need for change.
“In all of this, Kellogg continues to fight to remain competitive in a tough cereal category, and we have more capacity in our U.S. cereal network than is necessary to meet customer and consumer demand,” said Charles. “This creates higher operating costs at each of our U.S. RTEC facilities, compresses our profit margins and as a result, hampers our ability to fund innovation and brand building to grow our business.”
According to Charles, Kellogg must ensure its operating costs are competitive – including the wages and benefits of current and future employees, adding that is something the company has tried to do in cooperation with the union, through negotiations.
“For our employees and for this company, we must optimize our capacity-heavy network. We cannot continue the way we are with the significant gap between costs and capacity across our cereal network.