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Why hundreds of U.S. Frito-Lay workers have been striking

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Workers at the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas, say it used to be one of the best jobs in town — a place of shared meals, group outings and community.

In recent years, though, employees and union members say the facility where Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos are made has become another toxic work environment.

Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers at the Topeka facility are in week three of a strike over what union leaders describe as long hours, forced overtime, stagnating wages and a diminished quality of life. It’s the first strike at the plant in its decades of operation.

Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 218 union have called on the snack food company to provide better working conditions and pay. Among their grievances are so-called “suicide shifts,” in which employees work a full eight-hour day plus four hours of overtime with little turnaround time before the next shift.

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“Workers do not have enough time to see their family, do chores around the house, run errands, or even get a healthy night’s sleep,” the union’s international president Anthony Shelton said in a July 12 statement. “This strike is about working people having a voice in their futures and taking a stand for their families.”

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Frito-Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo, said in a statement that the claims about long hours were “grossly exaggerated.” It also pointed to a contract offer it made prior to the strike that would cap overtime limits at 60 hours and end what it referred to as “squeeze shifts.”

Corrina Christensen, communications director for the main Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union told CNN on Thursday that negotiations had concluded and that it would not comment further until after a vote by members. Frito-Lay did not address specific requests for comment by CNN, instead pointing to public statements released this week.

WORKERS FEEL THEY’RE BEING ‘PUSHED TO THE EDGE’

As the nation continues to recover from the pandemic, PepsiCo recently reported quarterly earnings that surpassed Wall Street estimates — Frito-Lay North America saw its organic revenue grow by 6%.

Workers at the Topeka plant, however, feel burned out.

Union leaders said in a podcast interview last week that they had asked management for years to address staffing shortages that resulted in forced overtime and long shifts, but that the issues were not adequately addressed.

“Before we walked out on the strike, they were 100 employees short already, which is where a lot of the overtime comes in,” said Paul Klemme, chief steward of Local 218.

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Mark McCarter, a Frito-Lay employee and union representative who has been working at the Topeka facility for more than three decades, told VICE that he makes $20.50 an hour despite his long career with the company and hasn’t received a proper raise in 10 years.

“I think people are pushed to the edge,” he told the outlet. “COVID created some of this. During COVID, managers got to work from home. People see that and realize they have other options. Everyone’s hiring and raising their pay because no one wants to work for $8 an hour anymore.”

Cherie Renfro, another worker at the facility, criticized Frito-Lay for giving bonuses instead of raises and accused the company of lowering wages for new employees. She also said workers did not receive hazard pay or other recognition for the risks they took throughout the pandemic.

“You have no problem paying for the drug tests, background checks, orientation and training for 350-plus employees that you hired and lost this past year,” Renfro wrote in the Topeka Capital-Journal. “But you have a problem giving decent living wages to keep loyal employees, already trained, already here.”

More than 800 workers are affected by the strike.

WHERE THINGS STAND

Union membership voted down a July 1 offer made by Frito-Lay before going on strike.

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Negotiations resumed this week, and on Thursday, the two sides concluded their talks.

Frito-Lay said in a statement that the new offer “will better address employee concerns around guaranteed days off and create additional opportunities for the union to have input into staffing and overtime,” adding that it would include across-the-board wage increases.

Christensen, the spokesperson for the main union, said members are currently voting on the contract and that results are expected late Friday.

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