‘Do better’; Hundreds of Henrico Nabisco workers on strike over contract negotiations

Henrico County

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Hundreds of workers are on strike at the Nabisco plant in Henrico County. Employees and union representatives walked out of the facility last week, refusing to work, making demands that no changes are made to their contract.

In the 90 degree heat and recent heavy downpours, the picketing on South Laburnum Avenue continues as workers chant “no contract, no work” and carry signs that read, “Nabisco workers on strike.” The fuel hasn’t burned out; Monday marked the eighth consecutive day for the 24-7 strike as people fight back against proposed contract changes.

Darlene Carpenter, a business agent for Local 358 for 14 years, has been picketing alongside Nabisco employees.

“We’re striking for a fair contract.” Carpenter told 8News. “Corporate greed is taking over and it’s time for the American worker to stand up.”

Some of America’s favorite snacks like Oreo’s, Chip Ahoy!, Nilla Wafers, and Ritz crackers are made inside of Henrico’s Nabisco plant. The plant is currently owned by company Mondelez International, which operates in 80 countries and employs around 80,000 around the world.

Carpenter said when the company took over in 2016, they got rid of employee pensions and enough is enough.

“We got employees who have been here for 45 years and they’re still here because they stole their pension from them. They don’t care about us,” Carpenter said. “We’ve had people in this plant working 16 hour shifts, anywhere from 10 to 20 days straight.”

Carpenter said that the environment went down hill as Mondelez International asserted its leadership. She adds that work did not stop for them in 2020, in fact business was booming more than ever as more people were confined to their homes and eating snacks.

“We were called essential employees. We came in here day in and day out, fearing that we were going to bring something home to our families to make the cookies. The supply and demand was so high,” Carpenter said. “We made billions in profit for this company and they didn’t give anything back to us.”

Carpenter said it was difficult and uncomfortable wearing a mask in the bakery due to the extreme heat, temperature checks were daily and some were exposed to the virus.

Reese Washington has put in 15 years at the plant and Marva Carter says she’s put in 21 years. Both shared with 8News that they’ve worked 16-hour shifts regularly to meet high demands. Carter said some of the chemicals they use to clean machines could kill employees, but it’s about making a great product.

“It is as if we don’t count,” Washington said. “We do count! We are professionals at what we do. Treat us like you appreciate us.”

On Monday, Washington and Carter stood side-by-side as they each addressed their concerns about the company’s choices. Carter said Nabisco employees were considered essential workers in 2020 and when she clocked-in, she never knew when she would get to leave.

“We have a sign that says ‘heroes work here.’ I don’t feel like a hero anymore. I feel like I lost my battle, but we out here battling now,” Carter told 8News. “It’s a sad scenario that we do have to fight this hard to get something we are well deserved of.”

Nabisco workers want their, now expired, contracts to remain the same. The 4-year-contract expired in May. Those protesting claim Mondelez is proposing alternative work hours, which extends work shifts from eight to twelve hours. Employees also claim the company plans to eliminate overtime or ‘premium pay’ on the weekends and deduct money for healthcare plans.

Carpenter and other employees on site told 8News healthcare costs are currently covered for workers because they’ve scarified years of raises and other concessions to have their health benefits taken care of. Essentially sharing that they’ve paid in other ways to have healthcare at no charge.

Mondelez is disputing the claims telling 8News there is a lot of misinformation circulating. A spokesperson for the snack company said the extended work hours will only apply to limited employees. They also said a majority of the current manufacturing lines would remain on a traditional schedule. The company stated the change in hours would add to a better ‘work/life’ balance.

The union responded and disagreed with the company’s claims. Union members questioned what the change would mean for parents and their children.

As far as healthcare cost, the proposed contract states only new employees would be required to pay for health benefits; the company called the payment ‘modest’, but didn’t give an exact amount. Mondelez says current employees will experience no change to their health benefits, however workers want new hires to also not pay for health benefits and fear the cost will eventually trickle down to current employees at some point.

Mondelez also responded to the claims of no more weekend overtime and said it’s not true. Providing 8News with this:

  • “For traditional M-F (5×8) schedules, we are proposing to move to 1.5x premium pay on the 6th day worked, and 2x pay on the 7th day worked.
  • This is exactly as it is today. However, we are clarifying that employees must work at least 4 hours each day during the week on their regular scheduled days or take paid time off. If so, they will continue to receive the same premiums on their 6th and 7th days.
  • What we are working to address is employees calling out during the week and still receiving premium pay on Saturday & Sunday”

Carpenter said what the company is asking for is ridiculous.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Carpenter. “You have made millions and billions off their backs. When are you going to start respecting them and treating them like a human-being. Lets get back to the table and negotiate.”

There have also been claims from workers that Mondelez is outsourcing jobs to Mexico, which the company denied on Monday. A spokesperson said despite the strike; salaried employees are at the facility working and making cookies and crackers. When asked how much –if at all– the strike has slowed down product distribution and production, she did not know.

Employees told 8News on Monday that they believed no cookies or crackers were being made because the smell had vanished and smoke was not rising from the building.

In a statement, Mondelez said they are disappointed by the strike and want to get back to the negotiation table.

Laurie M. Guzzinati, Senior Director, Corporate & Government Affairs North America, told 8News, “No one wins in a strike. We want to continue to provide good wages, benefits and an opportunity for employees to be with our company. Richmond is a strategic manufacturing location for our East Coast hub for growth and investment. We look forward to moving beyond this.”

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