Sen. Bernie Sanders in Michigan: Kellogg strike sends national message

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Battle Creek — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders told a crowd in Battle Creek Friday that the ongoing strike against the Kellogg Co., which is based here, is sending a national message to business executives that working people want dignity.

"In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, you’ve got to give workers a fair shake," the independent senator from Vermont told hundreds of people who gathered outdoors, across the street from a Kellogg office building.

The visit by Sanders, a national progressive political figure, was the latest example of the growing spotlight on the strike that began 73 days ago on Oct. 5, involving 1,400 workers in four cities and a prominent cereal company that makes brands like Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies.

A new tentative agreement between Kellogg and the union representing the workers was announced Thursday and will be voted on Sunday. The new offer of a five-year deal includes cost-of-living adjustments and a $1.10 per hour raise for all employees. The union last week overwhelmingly rejected a prior offer from the that included 3% raises, but not all employees would have received cost-of-living adjustments.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at a rally for striking Kellogg's workers at Farmers Market Square in Battle Creek, Michigan on December 17, 2021.

The national attention was on full display Friday with Sanders reading a letter from President Joe Biden to the workers.

"My message to you is keep the faith," Biden wrote.

Members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union have demanded better working conditions and a fairer pay structure for employees while criticizing a two-tier system that pays some workers less. Sanders said he heard from Kellogg employees who told him they were on the job for 50, 60 and 120 days in a row.

Todd Manusos, 43, who's worked at the Battle Creek plant for 24 years, said he once worked 120 days straight.

"There is forced overtime every single day, every single week," Manusos said after the senator's speech. "They inflate certain salaries there and then they use that against us.”

Asked to respond to the Sanders event on Friday, the Kellogg Co. shared a statement from Thursday on its tentative agreement with the union.

The average 2020 earnings for the majority of the hourly employees was $120,000, the company said. The tentative agreement includes increased pay for all employees, the statement said.

"We value all of our employees. They have enabled Kellogg to provide food to Americans for more than 115 years," said Steve Cahillane, Kellogg chairman and CEO. "We are hopeful our employees will vote to ratify this contract and return to work."

Workers who spoke at the Sanders event blasted it. Manusos described it as "garbage."

"They’re trying to do a quick grab because we’re getting momentum," Manusos said.

Earlier this week, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, sent a letter to Cahillane asking Kellogg to return to the bargaining table. The strike involves plants in four states: Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Michigan.

On Dec. 10, Biden issued a statement that he was "deeply troubled" by reports that Kellogg would permanently replace striking union workers during their collective bargaining negotiations.

Doing so would be "an existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods," the president said.

"I urge employers and unions to commit fully to the challenging task of working out their differences at the bargaining table in a manner that fairly advances both parties’ interests," Biden said.

Bobby Leddy, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's spokesman, said the administration was glad to see negotiations have continued to ensure that people are paid well, are treated fairly and can give their families a great life.

"Gov. Whitmer stands squarely on the side of working Michiganders who bust their butts day in and day out to keep things moving in our state," Leddy said. "Michigan was built by the dedicated, blue-collar working people and union members, and we will continue to be a strong ally in these efforts to put working people first."

Whitmer has also sent supplies to the picket line, including 470 pairs of hand warmers and four cases of water earlier this week.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont rallied with striking Kellogg Co. workers at Farmers Market Square in Battle Creek on Dec. 17, 2021. The self-identified democratic socialist told the crowd, "In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, you’ve got to give workers a fair shake."

On Friday, Sanders thanked the Kellogg workers and said he wanted America to know their stories. Working 50 or 120 days in a row is "insane," Sanders said.

"What that does to people, to your life, to your family is hard to know," Sanders said. "But there is one thing that I do know is that when people make that kind of sacrifice, when their families make that kind of sacrifice, you don’t treat those workers with disrespect and contempt."

He spoke for about 15 minutes, contending that the two-tier system at Kellogg was an example of corporate greed. Kellogg workers had fed the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.

From the other side of the aisle, the Michigan Republican Party blasted Sanders and his Michigan visit.

"Our working class is being decimated by new taxes he voted for on top of the worst inflation in more than 25 years, the result of progressive policies he supported," said Gustavo Portela, communications director for the Michigan GOP. "It’s time to end the grandstanding and get to work to lower taxes and make things more affordable for everyone."

Some of those in the crowd on Friday were to see Sanders, they said. Others were there to show public support for the workers. Joe Dewey, 51, of Battle Creek said he attended the event because he backs Sanders and labor unions.

The feeling in Battle Creek about the ongoing strike is "sadness and anger," said Dewey, who added that there was worry about layoffs.

"The economy has been going steadily downhill ever since 1997," Dewey said. "If this happens, we'll end up like Flint. I'm already scared of that as it is."

The Associated Press contributed.