MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On the picket line at the International Flavors and Fragrances plant Oct. 11, strikers Darold Brooks, a mechanic, and Thad Beckman, a lead man, told this Militant worker-correspondent about the horrendous safety record of the bosses here. They are two of the nearly 200 members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 390G who have been walking the picket line since June 4.
“There are a lot of accidents in the plant because the equipment is so old and they don’t upgrade it,” said Brooks, describing how he fractured his back in a fall from a ladder a year ago. “They’re still using centrifuges from the 1920s and sometimes they fly off.”
“One of the units known as Phase 1 has been shut down since January,” said Beckman. “There was a fire in the unit in November 2020. They didn’t get it cleaned out well enough and when they tried to run product it was contaminated. They just shut the whole unit down.”
Beckman was seriously injured while trying to clear out standing liquid in the plant, after bosses refused to buy new sump pumps to do the job. He thought he was standing in water and it turned out to be caustic chemicals that burned his feet so badly he almost lost them.
“The company insisted I come right back to work,” said Beckman. “They put me in front of a computer with my feet propped up. They don’t want anyone to file worker’s comp claims.”
There is an International Flavors and Fragrances plant that is nonunion in Pryor, Oklahoma. It is almost identical to the Memphis plant “down to the floor plan,” Brooks said. That plant did a big round of hiring in late May, just before the Memphis strike began.
There is one process that is unique to Memphis, called Phase 3, they said, which produces protein powder that goes into baby food sold by Abbott Industries. IFF is trying to keep this part of the plant running, using supervisors, replacement workers and some 20 union members, the only ones who’ve crossed the line.
Pickets pointed to that unit, the only one with smoke coming out of it. If the plant was running at full capacity, “you would see smoke way down the road.”
Cedric Wilson, president of Local 390G, was on the picket line when I came back the next day. “We’re not going back in without a decent contract,” he said. The company has refused to negotiate since their “last, best, and final offer” in June. “We’re willing to move on our demands,” added Beckman, a trustee in the local, “but they aren’t even willing to talk.”
“The bottom line is it’s a matter of respect and they don’t respect us. We worked through COVID, through holidays,” said Beckman. “I had COVID three times and it almost killed me. And now they want to take back from us.”
Strikers win support
The strikers are getting support from fellow unionists. “We send our Support and Respect to our Sisters and Brothers of BCTGM Local 390G in your effort for a new collective bargaining agreement,” said a letter signed by five BCTGM international representatives and the presidents of seven union locals in the Midwest. It said the strikers’ demands are “simple: dignity and respect on the job that comes from a union contract negotiated in good faith and without take-aways.”
This letter was delivered by Darren Hortor, a member of Local 167G in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He also brought a check for $760 from a collection taken at a stewards’ training session in Grand Forks.
Hortor works at the North Dakota Mill, a state-owned wheat mill. A long-time union activist, he helped organize solidarity with 1,300 BCTGM members locked out by American Crystal Sugar Company in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa in 2011-12.
BCTGM Local 390G members at IFF 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 goods.
The IFF bosses are demanding an end to paid lunch breaks, to stop paying overtime after eight hours, and to cut contributions to workers’ 401(k) retirement plans. This comes on top of health care costs going up dramatically since the company changed insurers two years ago after merging with Dupont.
IFF is an international conglomerate, with 158 plants and 51 laboratories worldwide. Bosses raked in $11.7 billion in profits in 2021.
Sweetrica Baker, from NewsGuild-CWA and the Memphis Central Labor Council, came to the picket line to invite workers to come to the Teamsters hall next week to get financial aid from the United Way if they need it. Strikers get $205 a week from the union strike fund, supplemented by fundraising for those who need extra help.
The Central Labor Council is helping to organize a joint rally to support the 390G strikers and strikers at the ACDelco parts plant in Memphis, part of the national United Auto Workers fight with the Big Three automakers. The rally will be at Overton Park in Memphis Oct. 22 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Another support rally was held in New York City Oct. 18, outside IFF headquarters at 521 W. 57th Street in Manhattan at 1 p.m.
IFF strikers need support! Join the rallies! Walk the picket line at 4272 S. Mendenhall Road. It’s up 24/7.
Contributions are needed. Go to www.gofundme.com/f/bctgm-local-390g-iff-memphis-workers-on-strike.