Union Cutout 635949d9a217a

End Flap: Union Blues

Oct. 26, 2022
Most companies don’t want to deal with unions if it can be avoided. But keeping unions out, or dealing with established ones, will require a better handle on staffing issues and more generous health benefits going forward.

Full disclosure: I might be slightly more sympathetic toward labor unions than the average business writer because of my own background. My father’s membership in the United Auto Workers helped my parents make a nice home for us and send my sister and me to prestigious private schools.

That’s why I’m something less than appalled as I see the resurgence of unionization across food and beverage, an industry where it typically has been negligible.

Only 8.2% of nondurable goods manufacturing workers were unionized in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In “agriculture and related industries,” the percentage is a pathetic 1.7% (although that includes farmworkers). These stats fit the overall picture for American unionization, which has been declining for decades. Union membership rates in the private sector went from about 17% in 1980 to 6.3% last year. As unionization has declined, income inequality in America has increased.

I know, correlation is not causation, but I highly doubt this is a coincidence.

Unionization may not have an overall resurgence anytime soon, but in the food sector, some unions have been surging plenty. Three major strikes last year, against three of the biggest food companies in America, shook up any complacency that managers might have had about their workforces.

This is noteworthy because much of the food processing workforce falls into demographics that have traditionally been hard to unionize: foreign-born, low-wage, heavily female. This situation prevails across the food chain; some of the most notable new union activity has been occurring at chains like Starbucks (much to the consternation of CEO Howard Schultz, a political dabbler who has been forced to abandon his above-it-all, “nonpartisan” approach to public policy).

As we lay out in this issue’s cover story, this increase in union activity is sparked at least in part by the Great Resignation. As pandemic relief payments reached American workers, they had time to re-evaluate their career options, and many of them found alternatives they liked better than working in a food plant.

To some extent, this was inevitable, because many food plants have inherent disadvantages when it comes to work environments: They’re just unpleasant places to work. To a great extent, this is unavoidable. When food is cooked or cooled, it makes the plant hot or cold; when it has to be cut up, knives or dangerous machinery is involved, etc.

But when you look at the grievances that pushed food plant workers into strikes last year, the same two complaints keep popping up: forced overtime and bad, or worsening, health coverage.

Some of the strikers at a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kan., claimed that they had been forced to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. The same union that led that strike was, at press time, conducting another at a Hormel Foods plant in Modesto, Calif., that makes Corn Nuts. The union alleges that when Hormel bought the Planters line of snacks, which includes Corn Nuts, from Kraft Heinz, it sought to triple the worker-paid portion of the health insurance premium.

Unionization is not inevitable, of course. That union, after leading a successful strike against Kellogg’s cereal plants, failed in an effort to organize a Kellogg facility dedicated to analogue meat products. But the incentive to organize will last as long as those twin pressure points of unreasonable work hours and expensive health insurance are around.

Most companies don’t want to deal with unions if it can be avoided. But keeping unions out, or dealing with established ones, will require a better handle on staffing issues and more generous (or at least uneroded) health benefits going forward.

Unionization isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it shouldn’t have to take place to ensure fair treatment of workers. Food companies that are having good financial performances might want to think about spending some of their cash to head off that situation. 

About the Author

Pan Demetrakakes | Senior Editor

Pan has written about the food and beverage industry for more than 25 years. His areas of coverage have included formulations, processing, packaging, marketing and retailing. Pan worked for Food Processing Magazine for six years in the 1990s, where he was operations editor (his current role), touring dozens of food plants of every description. He has also worked for Packaging and Food & Beverage Packaging magazines, the latter as chief editor, during which he won three ASBPE awards. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a BA in communications.

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