The media these days is full of what amounts to employer propaganda. The setbacks in the organizing drives at Amazon are called signs that unions are obsolete. The difficulties that low-wage companies are having in refilling positions are presented as justification for terminating enhanced unemployment compensation. The long-overdue upward movement in wages is depicted as part of a dangerous trend toward inflation.
The Washington Post has just bucked this trend by publishing an account of a labor conflict in Kansas that reminds us that certain unpleasant realities persist in the workplace and that some old-fashioned ways of responding to them are still suitable.
Hundreds of workers at a Frito-Lay snack food plant in Topeka went on strike earlier this month to protest work schedules that sound like something out of the 19th Century. Many of the employees were being forced to work seven days a week and up to 12 hours per shift, creating workweeks that could reach 84 hours.
The reason for this is that demand for Cheetos and Doritos has been robust, and Frito-Lay wants to make the most of it. Fortunately, the workers are represented by the Bakery union (BCTGM), so they are not completely at the mercy of management. Yet the company is said to have rebuffed calls from the union to hire more workers and is taking a hard line in contract renewal negotiations.
Frito-Lay’s retrograde management style started long before the current dispute. The company, a division of the soft drink giant PepsiCo, has a record of workplace abuses dating back at least two decades. This can be seen in Violation Tracker, which documents 29 cases since 2000.
These include seven cases in which Frito-Lay had to provide back-pay to workers to settle unfair labor practice charges as well as 13 cases in which it was penalized by OSHA for health and safety violations.
But perhaps what is most remarkable about Frito-Lay is that it has been sued repeatedly for wage and hour abuses and has paid out more than $23 million to settle five different collective action lawsuits. The largest of these was an $11.9 million settlement back in 2001 involving driver-salespersons. In 2018 the company paid $6.5 million to settle allegations that it did not provide proper pay to long-haul drivers, including a failure to comply with California law concerning meal and rest breaks.
Frito-Lay’s workplace practices are in keeping with those of its parent. PepsiCo has paid millions more to settle similar lawsuits relating to its Pepsi operations. These include a $5 million settlement in 2018 and a $3 million settlement in 2015. It has also paid fines to the U.S. Labor Department for Fair Labor Standards Act violations.
While some of the circumstances of the Kansas strike stem from the current economy, at its core is the age-old struggle by workers to be treated fairly. Let’s hope that the time-honored tactic of withholding labor is sufficient to get Frito-Lay to do the right thing.