MEMPHIS, Tenn. — “I’m glad I went on strike,” Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 390G member Macon Thornton told the Militant at their picket line here across from the International Flavors and Fragrances plant July 3.
“I’ve worked in there 25 years and at first I was a little nervous about the strike. But our local officers talked to me, and so did my other co-workers. ‘You’re not going to be alone,’ they said. I see now how much support we’re getting from other unions and even a few elected officials. We’re showing the company we’re not going to take it!”
The nearly 200 strikers had been working under an expired contract for almost a year when they walked out June 4. The company is demanding serious concessions in wages and benefits.
“The company has been taking, taking, taking for years,” said Local 390G President Cedric Wilson, who works as a dryer operator. “We can’t accept that anymore, especially the younger workers. They won’t accept it. This is really about our right to have a union.”
The company is demanding overtime be paid only after 40 hours, instead of after eight hours a day. Workers at International Flavors and Fragrances work rotating shifts, with one week on nights, the next on afternoons and the third on days. They are frequently forced to work up to 16 hours. Changing how overtime is calculated would mean a significant loss of income.
The bosses want to end paid lunch breaks and to cut their contribution to workers’ 401(k) retirement plans. IFF also wants to be able to unilaterally make changes to workers’ health insurance with only 30 days’ notice. Dissatisfaction with the quality of the company-provided health insurance and its ever-increasing costs is a big issue for strikers, especially those with families.
Workers at the plant extract protein from soy flakes through a series of complex chemical processes. It is then used by manufacturers to make a wide variety of products, from baby formula and nutritional supplement drinks to pet food and chocolate bars. “Our plant is kosher too,” one worker added.
New hires at International Flavors and Fragrances have to go through a nine-month probation before becoming permanent employees. Workers in quality control jobs and in the labs are union members, in addition to the operators and other production workers.
“My granddad was a sanitation worker here in Memphis for 60 years,” Sylvia Burks told the Militant. “He was part of the 1968 sanitation workers strike that Martin Luther King supported. I was little, but I remember him talking about it. That’s where the ‘I Am a Man’ sign on our picket line comes from. And my dad was a union member at Sealtest and had to go on strike in 1979. I learned from them how we have to stick together.”
Another striker named Burks, a former postal worker, said he started at IFF just nine months ago. “Six of the eight people hired with me have crossed the picket line, but two of us are out here!” he said proudly.
“This strike shows what we can do when we stand together,” Wilson said. “We’ve gotten support from other BCTGM locals in Memphis and beyond, from Teamsters, United Auto Workers, the NAACP, the West Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, and several local politicians.”
Strikers welcomed a message of solidarity and donation to the strike fund from BCTGM Local 42 members from Vie de France bakery in Atlanta that was brought to the picket line by Marklyn Wilson and Sam Manuel July 3.
Meanwhile, the company is trying to keep production going with management personnel and scabs, including a few union members who have crossed the picket line. Bosses claim their proposal is their “last, best, and final offer,” said Cedric Wilson.
The BCTGM International asks union supporters to join in a letter-writing campaign to CEO Frank Clyburn backing the union’s demand that the company return to negotiations.
The international union, as well as Local 390G, is encouraging everyone to join the picket line at 4272 South Mendenhall Road in Memphis. The strikers are picketing 24/7. More information is on the BCTGM website.