Robert McGowen holds no bitter feelings about the 10 months he stood on the highway outside the Kellogg Co. plant in Memphis protesting the company's lockout of him and 225 other workers because of a disagreement over a union contract.
The 23-year-veteran Kellogg Co. worker is just glad to be back at work. "We cranked it (the plant) up," McGowen told Labor South. "We are running good cereal. Everybody's getting along. The supervisors are glad to get us back. Some of us are fourth generation. I am second generation. It is like our kitchen. We can run it better than anyone else."
The workers are back no thanks to Kellogg Co. CEO and president John Bryant, whose leadership of the company since 2011 has treated the generations-stretching loyalty of workers like McGowan with contempt.
Thanks go to U.S. District Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays and his recent ruling that the National Labor Relations Board was essentially correct in seeking an injunction against the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal maker for serious violations of federal labor law. The company locked out the workers last October when their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, refused to agree to contract concessions that would cut wages and allow the hiring of new "casual" workers at lower pay. Mays ordered the company to allow the workers to report back to work Monday, August 11. With the order, workers resume getting wages, health insurance and other benefits, which they lost during the long lockout.
Administrative Law Judge Ira Sandron followed Mays' order a week later with a separate ruling against the NLRB complaint. Kellogg Co. leaders responded by saying they would reconsider plans to bring back the workers.
McGowen said Mays' ruling ultimately carries more weight than Sandron's ruling, and he and most of the other workers are indeed back at their jobs. Still, the Memphis Commercial Appeal this week profiled one 38-year-veteran Kellogg worker, Glen Mason, who told the newspaper "I can't work for that company anymore. I've never seen the company stoop so low as it has done this past year."
An estimated 60 percent of Kellogg workers in Memphis are like Mason: African American. Those workers have filed a claim of racial discrimination against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
McGowen said supervisors at the plant welcomed him and other workers back this week "with a 'glad you're back' (and) handshaking. … The supervisors were in turmoil (during the lockout). The supervisors didn't have anything to do with it."
Kellogg is a profitable company, reporting an increase in revenue from $14.2 billion in 2012 to $14.8 billion in 2013, plus a profit margin of 24 percent for the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2013. CEO Bryant's salary is roughly $6.6 million a year.
During the 10-month lockout, workers protested along the roadside outside the plant, often in rain, snow and both cold and hot weather. They went without pay, health insurance, or any assurance that the lockout would ever end. They received widespread support from the community and beyond -- although Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton was noticeably quiet during the fray. Political and religious leaders in the city called for a full-scale national boycott of Kellogg products. Organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress on Racial Equality, and Black Congressional Caucus all expressed their support for the locked-out workers. An online petition on their behalf gained thousands of signatures.
McGowen said he'll never again be able to drive by the protest site outside the plant without thinking about the lockout. "I was on that highway for 10 months. I drove back Monday, drove by that spot. It was all cleaned up, but I’ll never forget it."
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.
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