- Workers at Frito-Lay in Topeka, Kansas went on strike over poor conditions.
- Staff at other businesses have walked off the job and resigned in protest over how they’re treated.
- It’s part of a burgeoning worker rights movement that’s popping up all over the country.
- Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England and a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Mandatory overtime, no days off, and poor working conditions — workers at a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas went on strike this month to demand an end to mistreatment.
“The treatment and overtime has always been this way,” worker Samuel Huntsman told me.
The strike, which garnered national attention, is the latest example of how resentment over poor workplace conditions and unreasonable demands from employers is exploding around the country. Whether it’s mass job walk-offs and resignations, strikes, or public staff-wide announcements of discontent, workers are making their voices heard.
These actions aren’t necessarily successful in the immediate term. Frito-Lay and its Topeka workers have come to an agreement with a new contract that addresses some, but by no means all, of the issues. “We are screwed,” one staffer at the plant told me of the contract’s passage.
But while material gains can be hard to quantify, these actions are making the American public pay attention to the reality of working conditions around the country as the nation shakes off the lingering economic malaise from the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.
I’ve talked to a number of fed up workers in recent months, and they’ve all had a consistent message: Employers are overworking staffers while expecting them to deal with horrific conditions and low pay.
Kylee Johnson, a former Burger King employee in Lincoln, Nebraska who quit with the majority of the store’s staff over poor treatment in early July, told me her decision to leave was tied to the way regional management acted toward her best friend, store manager Rachael Flores. Flores was regularly expected to work 50-60 hours in brutal conditions — including heat so intense she once landed in the hospital for dehydration.
“It sickens me seeing how these people [want to] run a business,” said Johnson.
On one of her last days, Flores set the store’s sign to say “We all quit. Sorry for the inconvenience.” It was meant to be a little joke for the restaurant’s regular clientele, she told local ABC affiliate KLKN.
Photos of the sign went viral, earning Flores and Johnson the opportunity to tell their story in national media. “It’s just incredible what standing up for your rights can do,” Johnson said.
Months earlier, in May, Dollar General employees in a store in Eliot, Maine walked off the job and achieved a similar notoriety for a sign they left on the door calling out the parent company for mistreatment and low pay. “Closed indefinitely because Dollar General doesn’t pay a living wage or treat their employees with respect,” read the sign, composed by workers Brendt Erikson and Hannah Barr.
“I stand up for workers, I stand up for workers’ rights,” Erikson told me.
The protest garnered media attention and the support of the Maine AFL-CIO, whose communications director Andy O’Brien noted that the demonstration wasn’t a fluke.
“Dollar General is a notoriously anti-worker company and is dealing with workplace unrest across the country due to their exploitative behavior,” O’Brien told me.
These stories are just two of a number of recent public walkouts that have been going viral and bringing attention to the reality of working in America. But for all that attention, workers are still up against an intractable adversary — and gains are hard to come by, as Frito-Lay strikers discovered.
All across America, workers are making their case against decades of low wages, overwork, and poor conditions. That these sporadic uprisings — wildcat and union-sanctioned alike — against management are coming on the heels of the pandemic is not a mistake. The pandemic exposed the inadequacies of the US economy and showed the general public that they could get a better deal if the people in power wanted to give them one.
But after months of an impressive government mobilization that spanned two presidential administrations and generated an unprecedented level of state intervention and aid, people were sent back to work with no protections or help. And businesses, particularly ones that rely on lower wage workers, were uninterested in radically changing the way they did things to accommodate staff who were coming back to work.
Add to this mix the upsurge of social justice activism around the country that intensified throughout the Trump years but took on added importance in an election year and you have a perfect cocktail of class resentment and rage.
Workers at the Topeka Frito-Lay plant have described a hellish, abusive environment.
The plant has multiple safety violations, photos from inside the facility leaked to me show, presenting workers with a dangerously unsafe environment. Fans with damaged, open wires hanging from them are plugged in; boxes of product block egress; frequent fires from the kitchen reportedly regularly fill the plant with smoke.
Workers were expected to work in these conditions for up to 84 hours a week. Sometimes those workweeks involved so-called “suicide shifts,” where staffers would only have eight hours between two 12-hour shifts.
The new contract won by the workers does away with the suicide shifts and guarantees one day off a week, but the details of the plan make the contract murkier than it appears at first.
According to language in a company contract amendment approved by the workers, “all employees will be guaranteed off either their sixth or seventh day of the work week unless the employee has already taken any form of time off (whether scheduled or unscheduled) in the work week.”
But any “form of time off” can include refusing to work mandatory overtime, meaning that it’s technically possible for the company to force workers to come in seven days a week.It potentially adds up to a maximum of 80 hours a week.
Nevertheless, how these workers have asserted their rights and dignity in the face of poor treatment and conditions is something to watch for in the coming months and years. Their interests are best served by fighting their own fights, and not waiting for help from elsewhere. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but having learnt it, American workers are applying it.