As hundreds of exploited workers picket in Topeka, Kansas to demand fair working conditions, New Jersey progressive champion Lisa McCormick is asking consumers to support them by boycotting Frito-Lay products until executives at PepsiCo, the corporate employer, give in to their demands.
“More than 800 workers at the Topeka Frito-Lay plant have been on strike since July 5 to protest conditions that are literally killing them, such as working 12-hour days, seven days a week, without a day off in five months,” said McCormick. “Americans should boycott Frito-Lay and all PepsiCo products, such as Starbucks, Lipton and Tropicana, Quaker Oats, Sun Chips, Funyuns, Doritos and Lays.”
Among the Frito-Lay workers’ biggest issues is forced overtime. Some of the plant employees say they have had to work 84-hour weeks for weeks on end as a result of the a COVID-19 era surge.
“Nobody I know loves Frito-Lay enough that they want to live there,” said a striking worker named Monk Drapeaux-Stewart, a box drop technician who is responsible for keeping the plant’s machines supplied with cardboard. “We want to go home and see our families. We want to have our weekends off. We want to work the time that we agreed to work—and hopefully not much more than that.”
The last several contracts have featured lump sum bonuses most years, leaving wage rates stagnant for most classifications. Drapeaux-Stewart said he’s only gotten a 77-cent per hour increase over the last 12 years.
Mark McCarter, a 59-year-old Frito-Lay employee and 37-year veteran of the job said conditions deteriorated rapidly during the pandemic, nothing that one man died on the job and others have died by suicide over the years.
“This is not a good job,” said McCarter. “At 7am, our warehouse is 100 degrees. We don’t have 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.”
The Frito-Lay facility, which has been around for 50 years, has not kept pace with other employers, which have not achieved stellar performance when it comes to respecting employees.
“Between all those industries, Frito-Lay sits at the bottom of the ladder as far as wage scales,” said Mark Benaka, business manager for Bakery Workers (BCTGM) Local 218, which represents workers at Frito-Lay and Bimbo. Other local facilities have offered significant wage increases in recent weeks, Benaka said, but Frito-Lay continues to offer pennies.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago Frito-Lay had a really good reputation—all you need is a high school diploma and you’ve got this job with good pay and benefits,” said Drapeaux-Stewart, who started working at the facility 16 years ago. “But slowly all of that has been whittled away.”
That’s made it difficult to maintain workers—and led to the mountains of forced overtime.
“Conditions are really just deteriorating as each contract rolls by,” said Cheri Renfro, an operator in the Geographic Enterprise Solutions department, where workers fulfill orders for smaller mom-and-pop shops and gas stations.
Renfro estimated that the company brought in more than 350 employees in the last year—and lost the same amount. “You have to wonder as a company why wouldn’t you question that—say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’
Anthony Shelton, international president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) issued a statement in solidarity with Local 218 members at the Topeka Frito Lay facility.
“We stand in solidarity with the hardworking men and women of BCTGM Local 218 on strike against Frito Lay. These families have the International Union’s unwavering support as they stand up for justice and dignity on the job,” said Shelton. “This strike is about more than wages and benefits. It is about the quality of life for these workers and their families.”
“Despite our repeated warnings to the management of Frito Lay over the last decade, current employees are being forced to work seven days a week, up to 12 hours per shift. Many of the more than 800 workers are only getting an eight-hour break between shifts,” said Shelton. “They are forcing the current workforce to work double and triple shifts. Workers do not have enough time to see their family, do chores around the house, run errands, or even get a healthy night’s sleep. This strike is about working people having a voice in their futures and taking a stand for their families.”
“Frito Lay, owned by beverage and food processing giant PepsiCo, is exploiting its dedicated employees and risking their health by forcing them to work so many hours,” said Shelton. “The union has repeatedly asked the company to hire more workers and yet despite record profits, Frito Lay management has refused this request.”
Shelton said the union members “were left with no choice but to strike to defend the livelihoods of themselves and their families” but BCTGM negotiators are ready to work toward a fair contract that reflects the value of the men and women employed at the factory.
“We simply ask that management recognize the sacrifices our members have made, and work with us to find a solution that promotes the well-being of our membership and their families,” said Shelton.