Frito-Lay workers on strike in Topeka are searching for other employment opportunities, pulling from personal savings and even turning to family members for help, as they seek to support themselves during a strike that doesn’t have an end in sight.
This is the second week of the union-led labor strike outside Topeka’s Frito-Lay plant, 4236 S.W. Kirklawn Ave. The strike began just after midnight July 5.
“Those of us who are out here every day, there’s a sacrifice we’re making,” said Esther Fanning, who is participating in the strike after five years with Frito-Lay.
For Fanning, that sacrifice has partly come in the form of not getting to throw a normal birthday party for her twins, who turned 9 this past weekend.
“I made a sacrifice of having my kids’ birthday here at the picket line,” Fanning said. “We had a little happy birthday. We had some ice-cream cake. I told my kids, ‘When I leave you guys, I come to my family here at work.'”
Some union members look for other employment as strike continues
Because of the long hours and steady overtime Frito-Lay employees must work, Fanning said, they have little choice but to bond. And she feels union members are standing together as family, as they speak out against their employer.
Still, that hasn’t kept her from looking for other work as the strike wears on.
“I’ve been looking for other jobs,” Fanning said. “I’m torn between leaving my people. I don’t want to leave anyone struggling.”
Michael Peters, a machine operator in Frito-Lay’s warehouse, has been working at the Topeka plant for four-and-a-half years. He consistently clocked 70-80 hours per week before the strike. Such overtime hours, which workers say are often forced upon them, almost cost Peters his marriage.
Now, in between shifts on the strike line, Peters works in a hayfield with his father and uncle to fill the void left by lack of a paycheck, as he has a wife and two children — with a third on the way — to support.
“This week, it’s been raining, so I can’t work,” said Peters, pointing to yet another financial stressor.
“Coming back from the farm (last week), my passenger-side truck tire U-joints came off,” he said. “Now that’s going to cost me $1,200 out of pocket.”
With such expenses in mind, he said he hopes Frito-Lay and the contract negotiating committee for Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union come to an agreement soon.
“Hopefully on the 19th, they (Frito-Lay) are not going to screw us around and give us the better offer that we deserve,” Peters said. “We’ve put our sweat and blood into this company. … We deserve what we need to support our family.”
July 19 is when Local 218’s contract negotiating committee will meet again with Frito-Lay representatives, as the two parties try to hash out a deal that would put months of strife over pay and working conditions to rest.
“There’s that part of me that can see the light at the end of this tunnel,” Fanning said. “I see change coming. It’s sad that it had to take this.”
Strikers fighting for increased pay, better work environment
Workers on strike are calling on Frito-Lay to address the staffing shortage that has led to widespread forced overtime and dismal working conditions at the Topeka plant. They also want the company to commit to across-the-board pay raises, as some employees say they haven’t seen a notable raise in 10 years.
“A lot of people want to see that being put into our contracts,” said Dan Negrete, a strike captain who has been with Frito-Lay for more than two decades. “Some years, we would get a raise, some we won’t. For the most part, people want to see a couple bucks.”
Fellow strike captain Paul Klemme said the boycott is also about making Topeka’s Frito-Lay plant a safer place to work.
“Our fight is to make Frito-Lay better as a work environment,” Klemme said. “Our job is to make it better for the future, for our fellow employees.”
He added Frito-Lay runs the risk of losing union workers to other local employers if the strike goes on too long.
Brent Hall, president of Local 218, estimates 10-15 workers have already left for good.
“People are finding other jobs that pay somewhat the same, but they’re probably getting treated better,” Hall said. “It gets worse every day. Every day that they keep us out here, they’re losing people, skilled people.”
Hall said Local 218 is asking members of the Topeka community to call or write to PepsiCo, Frito-Lay’s parent company, to encourage the corporation to negotiate in good faith with the union.
Past negotiations failed to result in a contract both sides could agree on.
Frito-Lay hiring, says plant remains operational
During the strike, “Frito-Lay Careers” posted information to Facebook about an open house the company plans to have July 22 and 23 at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka to recruit more workers.
A spokesperson for Frito-Lay said the company planned to host an open house prior to the union members striking. The Facebook event for the open house, however, wasn’t posted until July 9.
“We continue to welcome any employees who are part of the bargaining unit on strike to continue to work as they are legally entitled to do,” the company spokesperson said, “and we are currently not permanently replacing employees who are on strike.”
They added the local plant has remained operational during the strike by employing “a mix of local Topeka employees, leaders from other locations, and third-party labor.”
Until the company meets with union representatives on July 19, the spokesperson added, Frito-Lay “will continue to be attentive to the situation.”
Some union members on strike said they plan to stay as long as they need to.
“I’m tired because I’m working to be here as much as possible,” Negrete said of spending time on the strike line. “But Frito-Lay was a different kind of tired. You just wanted to shut down. Out here I’m hoping that we’re pushing for something and it’s going to change some stuff. And now people won’t be scared to stand up.”