Striking Frito-Lay workers contemplate sacrifice in fight for better wages, work conditions

By: - July 19, 2021 3:55 am

Hundreds of workers and their supporters line up in July 2021 across from a Frito-Lay warehouse entrance in Topeka to protest poor wages and work conditions. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — It is more than 90 degrees outside the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, but standing in the picket line feels cool compared to inside the warehouse, where at 7 a.m. most days temperatures are already peaking over 100, said Reyna Corbus.

Corbus is one of more than 500 workers on strike at the plant demanding higher wages and more limited hours. Since July 5, workers have gathered across from the warehouse entrance with signs asking for public support and chastising Frito-Lay.

Last week, Corbus came equipped with a hand-painted sign made by her daughter depicting a boot stomping on workers attempting to speak up. Many of the employees of this plant describe feeling like the image on that sign — silenced or stepped on by Frito-Lay.

Working in strenuous and scorching conditions without proper compensation, as she has done for 20 years, is unsustainable, Corbus said.

“We need to start to be treated like humans,” Corbus said. “We give our life to the company because we have spent so many years away from the family. We already talked to the company so many times and they just don’t want to give us anything.”

Renya Corbus holds a sign Wednesday on the picket line where Frito-Lay workers have been striking since July 5. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Union members rejected a contract offer from Frito-Lay with an annual 2% wage increase because for many workers that would be less than 50 cents per hour. Additionally, because of worker shortages, many employees are subjected to forced overtime and work up to 84-hour weeks.

Paul Klemme, chief steward of Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union, said many departments have not seen more than 20- to 40-cent raises in the past six to eight years, which made Frito-Lay’s offer so offensive.

Under the union contract that expired the day workers walked out, members of the bargaining unit made anywhere from $16.33 to $38.42 per hour, depending on the job.

“This isn’t a greed issue,” Klemme said. “The last 10 years Frito-Lay has started to treat their employees worse and worse and worse, so it’s finally snapped on this contract.”

Klemme said better worker safety is on their radar for Monday, when the company said it will resume negotiating with the union.

The warehouse workers’ efforts have attracted support from members of other departments, as well.

Gary Thomas walks up and down the picket line keeping morale high. He came from Missouri to support other union workers. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Mario Wheat has worked at this Frito-Lay plant for 14 years in a variety of roles, including boxing and shipping. He said his pay is not ideal, so he joined the picket line both for himself and to show solidarity.

Wheat said he knows co-workers who have not been able to take a day off in more than two months. He said workers deserve a raise that reasonably accounts for the growing cost of living.

“It’s all about respect — money and respect,” Wheat said. “We’re tired of being under-appreciated. This is a sad man because nobody wants to be out here, because we’re losing money.”

Gary Thomas came from Claycomo, Missouri, alongside several fellow members of United Auto Workers Local 249. He said at their core, strikes like these are about sacrifice.

Employees are sacrificing for their families when they work 12-hour days in poor conditions, and now on strike, they are sacrificing their paycheck to stand up and send a message, Thomas said.

Some people like Wheat have picked up part-time jobs to buoy their finances while the strike continues.

“That’s ultimately what it is across America today. We’re seeing everyone from farmworkers to factory workers to office workers being mistreated,” Thomas said. “And people like Frito-Lay people, they’re actually fighting and sacrificing. They’re fighting for their rights as workers, they’re fighting for their dignity and they’re fighting for justice.”

Throughout the day, Thomas can be spotted along the picket line, bullhorn in hand. He says the No. 1 killer of a successful strike is lethargy, so he wants to make sure Frito-Lay knows they care.

Frito-Lay said it does its best to maintain good working conditions and made concessions in union negotiations. Last week, Frito-Lay declared the strike was unnecessarily putting employees at risk.

In a letter sent home to workers, Frito-Lay said it remains committed to providing a “safe and fair workplace.”

Tony Gallegos’ sign shows a greedy Chester Cheetah — the mascot for the corn puff snack made by Frito Lay. (Noah Taborda/KansasReflector)

“We believe our existing two-year offer addresses the concerns that have been raised at our Topeka facility,” the company said. “That good-faith offer, which was recommended by the entire union bargaining committee, accepted the union’s proposal for across-the-board wage increases and improved work rules that would reduce overtime and hours worked.”

Frito-Lay also said of the 850 manufacturing and warehouse employees, about 300 continue to work. The company said its compensation philosophy allows for competitive wages across the market.

Tony Gallegos, a Sun Chips Frito process operator, is hopeful this clash can be resolved swiftly and properly.

“We can’t let that Goliath beat you down every time. You got to stand up for what’s right,” Gallegos said. “Everybody has their own stake in this war, and for whatever reason it just continues to happen at this plant.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.