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Boycott Outsourced Oreos, Laid-Off Workers Urge

July 1, 2016  
By Steven Wishnia

Chicago, IL – In his four and a half years at the Nabisco plant on the city’s Southwest Side. 40-year-old Anthony Jackson worked “in every department except sanitation.” He mixed icing for Oreos, mixed dough on the main bakery floor, and was “all over packing.”

That ended on March 23, when Mondelēz, Nabisco’s parent company, laid off 600 workers—half the plant’s staff—as part of a plan to shift production to Mexico. Bakery-floor workers in Chicago could make $25-26 an hour, Jackson says. Mondelēz did not answer questions about how much workers in its Mexican plants make, but the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, whose Local 300 represents the Chicago workers, believes it’s about $60 a week.

Since then, Jackson has joined the Nabisco 600 National Consumer Education tour, a campaign organized by the BCTGM to advocate aboycott of Nabisco products made in Mexico, to put pressure on Mondelēz to bring the jobs back to Chicago.

“In order for these business plans to work, they need the U.S. consumer. That’s where the breadbasket is,” says BCTGM strategic campaign coordinator Ronald Baker. “If we cut off that revenue, it doesn’t make sense to make [the product] down there, because people there can’t afford to buy it.”

“Right now, my focus is to get our jobs back,” Jackson tells LaborPress over the phone from Chicago. “We’ve been trying to get word out about the boycott and teach people how to read the label.”

To tell where the Oreos, Fig Newtons, and Chips Ahoy cookies and the Ritz and Honey Graham crackers on the supermarket shelf were made, explains Baker, you have to read the fine print on the label like a vegetarian trying to find out if a can of soup was made with meat stock. First, the package will say “Made in Mexico” above the Mondelēz logo. Second, if the two-letter code after date stamp is MM or MS, that signifies the Monterrey or Salinas plants in Mexico. If the code starts with A or X, it was made at one of Nabisco’s six U.S. plants; AE is Chicago.

Teams of laid-off workers and union staff have been traveling around the country to talk about the boycott, Baker says, and the AFL-CIO endorsed it in April. Michael Smith, 59, a utility worker who was also laid off in March, has appeared on a radio show in Atlanta, testified before a Democratic platform committee in Washington, and handed out flyers to supermarket buyers in Orlando, Florida, urging them to buy only American-made Nabisco products. Forklift driver LaDonna DeGoiyer gave out similar leaflets at Walmart stores in Georgia and the Chicago area, and participated in Fight for $15 and Jobs for Justice rallies.

“They’re on our side, We need to be on theirs,” she says.

The campaign is also asking people to post comments on Nabisco’s Twitter feed and the Oreo Facebook page, to get the company to “see that there’s a lot of discontent with what they’re doing,” says Smith. “We’re not trying to be malicious,” he adds, saying he’d be happy if people bought American-made Nabisco products.

The layoff is the “second go-round” for Smith, who lost a job at DHL during the 2008-09 recession. He used a retraining program to get a commercial driver’s license, and hopes to get a new job as a trucker. But when he spoke to Mondelēz CEO Irene Rosenfeld at a shareholders’ meeting in May, he says, she “clearly had no empathy for the workers.”

 “We’re a large, multinational company operating in a very challenging macro environment,” Mondelēz vice president for global communications Russell Dyer told LaborPress in an email. “Creating a best-in-class integrated supply chain to support our global business is essential to driving our competitiveness and growth.”

The Chicago bakery “is NOT closing,” he emphasized. It will stay open with the remaining 600 employees, and three U.S. bakeries will continue to make Oreos. The company, he adds, has “invested almost $450 million to modernize and upgrade our U.S. manufacturing” since 2012, well above the $130 million it announced it would spend on the Salinas plant in July 2015.

Mondelēz (rhymes with bees) International, based in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, owns several brands more than 100 years old, including Philadelphia creamcheese and Toblerone and Cadbury’s chocolate. However, the company formed only four years ago, when Kraft—which had acquired Nabisco in 2000—split its snack and grocery divisions into two separate companies. It’s the world’s leading manufacturer of biscuits, chocolate, and candy, and ranks second in chewing gum.

Mondelēz’s financial report for the first quarter of 2016, released April 27, said that its net revenues had decreased 16.8%, to $6.45 billion, but its “organic net revenue” was up 2.1%, its net operating income margin was 11.2%, and its gross profits more than $2.5 billion.

“We've had a good start to the year,” Rosenfeld said in a statement. "We significantly expanded margins by continuing to reduce supply chain and overhead costs.” The CEO has received about $170 million in compensation over the last eight years, according to the BCTGM.

Before the layoffs, Mondelēz demanded $46 million in annual concessions from the Local 300 workers to make the Chicago plant’s labor costs competitive with those in Mexico. “It was impossible for us even to think about accepting them,” says LaDonna DeGoiyer. They included a 60% pay cut, taking away pensions, and ending the “Golden 80” policy, in which workers could retire with a full pension if their age and the number of years they had on the job added up to 80.

“We were still making them money,” she says.

DeGoiyer, a 58-year-old mother of three, had worked in the plant for six and a half years, loading and unloading trucks on the midnight shift in its distribution center. She was happy to get the job. It had taken her five years to find good-paying work since the Kraft plant she’d been at for 13 years moved to Mexico, it was near her home, and because of Nabisco’s ties to Kraft, her old pension plan carried over.

Since the layoffs, she says, her 20-year-old daughter has had to drop out of college, and all her hair has fallen out from the stress. She worries that looking like a chemotherapy patient is hurting her chances of getting another job.

“If we don’t win this, who knows what they’ll do to the other five plants,” she says. “It’s gotten way bigger. It’s like we’re fighting for all American jobs.”

“This is not America versus Mexico,” Anthony Jackson says. “We’re also trying to stop the exploitation of Third World countries.” But he sees a “direct correlation” between the disappearance of good working-class jobs and the violence that has given Chicago the epithet “Chiraq.” The city has had more than 320 murders so far this year, more than twice as many as New York, with 40 of them in the West Englewood and Englewood neighborhoods, which begin about 20 blocks east of the Nabisco plant.

“When people don’t have jobs, they tend to go to the underworld, the underbelly of society,” he says. “It leads people to be in a mode of desperation.”

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