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Striking Frito-Lay Workers Demand Better Hours

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Hundreds of workers who make Cheetos, Lays potato chips and other popular snack foods at a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kan., have been on strike since July 5, protesting what they call “suicide shifts” and other poor working conditions.

The workers, who are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, Local 218, said that they had been pushed to exhaustion and that the company had refused to address their concerns.

“This strike is about more than wages and benefits,” Anthony Shelton, the union’s international president, said in a statement. “It is about the quality of life for these workers and their families.”

Mr. Shelton said that, despite warnings to Frito-Lay management over the last decade, workers had been forced to work seven days a week, up to 12 hours per shift. Many of the more than 800 workers at the plant, he said, had gotten only eight-hour breaks between shifts, leaving them little time to see their families, run errands or get a healthy night’s sleep.

Workers have called these double or triple shifts “suicide shifts” and have blamed them on understaffing, which they said Frito-Lay could easily address without hurting the company’s bottom line. Frito-Lay is a division of PepsiCo, which recently reported a huge jump in revenue in its drinks and snacks businesses in the second quarter.

The food and beverage giant, which is home to Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Doritos, said in July that its net revenue in the quarter surged 20.5 percent to $19.2 billion from a year earlier.

“The union has repeatedly asked the company to hire more workers, and yet despite record profits, Frito-Lay management has refused this request,” Mr. Shelton said.

As the strike continued on Thursday, both sides appeared to be working toward a resolution.

Andy Sanchez, executive secretary-treasurer of the Kansas State AFL-CIO, said he had heard from striking workers on Thursday that the union had reached a “tentative agreement” with Frito-Lay that was scheduled for a vote by the membership on Friday.

“It just remains to be seen whether it will pass or not,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the bakery, confectionery, tobacco workers and grain millers union declined to comment on Thursday.

Frito-Lay said in a statement on Thursday that it had spent the last three days jointly revisiting the terms of a prior offer and had “aligned on a new offer that will better address employee concerns around guaranteed days off and create additional opportunities for the union to have input into staffing and overtime.”

“Importantly, the revised offer once again includes across-the-board wage increases to employees in all job classifications,” the company said. “We believe this offer addresses the most pressing issues raised by our employees, and we believe it represents a win-win for both the union and Frito-Lay.”

It said it could not release the details of the offer, at the union’s request, but was urging workers to ratify the proposal so they can return to the plant.

Frito-Lay also called the union’s claims about work hours at the plant “grossly exaggerated.”

Out of about 850 employees in Topeka, only 20 averaged over 60 hours per week, the company said. It said its records indicated that 19 employees worked 84 hours in a given workweek this year, and 16 of those had volunteered for overtime. Only three of the 19 had been required to work, the company said.

Frito-Lay employs more than 66,000 people, and the strike is the first at one of its plants in three decades, according to the company.

Of approximately 850 manufacturing and warehouse employees who are part of the bargaining unit on strike, about 300 have exercised their legal right to continue working, the company said.

Hourly wages at the plant range from $18.35 to $36.91 per hour, according to the company. Frito-Lay said its offer to the union on July 1 called for a two-year contract with a 4 percent wage increase for all job classifications over the period.

Many of the workers, however, “wished they could do more” to protect employees from forced overtime and to increase wages, Mr. Sanchez said.

Union leaders have complained about workers coming into the plant without proper training, which they say suggests the company is not taking safety precautions seriously.

On the picket line, striking workers have held signs that read: “Forced Overtime = No Family Time,” and “shareholders don’t make chips, employees do!”

“Wages have been stagnant for a long, long time and this got to the point where workers have just had enough,” Mr. Sanchez said. “They were pushed to the limit.”

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