August 5, 2023
From The Militant

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — “Union strong! All day long!” chanted some 75 striking members and supporters of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 390G as they rallied in front of the International Flavors and Fragrances plant here July 26. Nearly 200 members of the union have been on strike since June 4 after working for almost a year under an expired contract.

The workers make soy protein products that are used by Nestle, Nestle Purina, Kind Bars, Abbott Nutrition and other companies to manufacture baby formula, pet foods, soy-based nutritional powders and other products.

“Why are we striking?” said Local 390G member Cornelius Moore, who chaired the rally. “People think we want more money. We’re just trying to maintain what we already have. We’re defending our precious benefits. They can call us into the job early on a moment’s notice and now they don’t want to pay overtime.”

Workers at International Flavors and Fragrances work long shifts and are paid time and a half after eight hours. They also work rotating weekly shifts, going from nights to afternoons to days. The schedule is seven days in a row with either one, two or four days off in between. Now the bosses demand workers get overtime pay only after 40 hours.

“What’s a weekend?” Effie Graham, a 31-year employee, told the Militant. “We only get one long weekend a month!”

“I gave up my kids’ childhood to this company and look how they treat us!” said Mary Randolph, a boiler operator since 1997.

Other concessions the bosses demand include smaller company contributions to the workers’ retirement plan, ending paid lunches, and offering wage increases less than inflation. “It’s all taking and no giving,” many workers said.

The workers want more affordable health care. The plan now includes high deductibles, high premiums and doesn’t cover a number of essential medications, like for high blood pressure.

“There is nothing going on in that plant!” Local 390G President Cedric Wilson told the rally. Some 20 unionists have crossed the picket line to work, Wilson said, “and the company has hired a few more, but they’re not producing much.”

The company says the union refuses to meet. “The company has been lying about this the whole time,” said Wilson. “We have repeatedly offered to go back to the bargaining table.”

Most strikers are Black in a city where workers are proud of the record of battles against Jim Crow segregation and for workers’ rights that took place here. Many carry signs saying, “I am a man,” the slogan used by sanitation workers in a historic strike in 1968.

“We’re going to fight until we win, and then we’re going to keep fighting!” Kermit Moore from the Memphis branch of the A. Philip Randolph Institute told the crowd. “Tell your friends, your neighbors, your family to stop by the picket line. When we stand together, we will win.”

Local 390G member Glenda Sumner told the rally her husband had passed away since the strike began. When Sumner called the head of Human Resources in the plant, “she said I can’t collect on his life insurance policy because I didn’t cross the line and go to work!”

“But we’re going to fight this!” Wilson said.

Also speaking were BCTGM International Vice President Zach Townsend; Vickie Terry, executive director of the Memphis NAACP; Pastor Walter Womack of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Tennessee State Rep. Justin Pearson. Terry and Womack vowed to win support for the fight at upcoming NAACP and SCLC conferences.

Other unionists at the rally were from the United Auto Workers; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees; Teamsters; Kevin Bradshaw, president of the Memphis Central Labor Council and of the BCTGM local at Kellogg’s, where there was a powerful strike in 2021; and Letitia Malone, president of the BCTGM local at Blues City Brewery.

“We began to prepare for this strike in August of last year,” Cometris Morgan, vice president of Local 390G, told the Militant.  “The company hired a union-busting law firm and began demanding changes in our contract even before negotiations began. Their first offer on wages was a 1% raise, so we knew they wanted to break the union.”

“The number one reason why unions lose these fights is when they don’t communicate and involve the membership,” said Local 390G President Wilson. A union has to sharpen its sword by using the talents of every member. Everyone has something to offer. We’re willing to come speak about the strike to win support anywhere we’re asked to go,” he said.

Many unionists and others have joined the picket line and donated to the strike fund. “Local 36G in Buffalo, New York, sent a donation to support their striking brothers and sisters,” the BCTGM International reported, “and BCTGM Local 22 members from Jerry’s Broadway Bakery in Minneapolis delivered cards with messages of solidarity for Local 390G members.”

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