A Nation Engaged: Nabisco Workers Keep Fighting For Chicago Jobs
In Chicago last summer, the parent company of Nabisco announced it would stop baking Oreo cookies on the city’s Southwest Side. It would mean 600 jobs lost to a plant in Mexico.
Since then, workers have continued to fight for those jobs, and their fight has become a symbol of the loss of American jobs.
But former workers at the plant, and their union, aren’t giving up.
A second-floor apartment across the street from the Nabisco plant at 73rd Street and Kedzie Avenue is the organizing headquarters for the workers. It’s strewn with union campaign literature and signs criticizing Mondelez, the parent company of Nabisco.
Nabisco was at one time the world’s largest bakery, and it still makes a lot of familiar products found in kitchen cabinets. Before the layoff announcement, the bakery employed 1,200 people.
Anthony Jackson and Michael Smith were two of those who received pink slips. They are now are part of the Nabisco 600 Tour. The two men and one other laid-off employee travel around the country, urging union workers, politicians and community members to boycott Nabisco products made in Mexico.
They also do what they call store actions.
“We go to a grocery store or a convenience store and we’ll just check the labels, check to see if they have made-in-America products as well as made-in-Mexico products. And if so we’ll talk to the manager and see if vendors can only send in made-in-America products, but also we’ll speak to customers who may be in that aisle and make them more educated,” said Jackson, a 40-year-old veteran.
The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union represents Nabisco workers. Since the “check the label” campaign was launched six months ago, organizers say millions of other union workers have signed on.
Smith said the fight is national because the stakes are so high.
“This is definitely a race to the bottom and not a good scenario for working people in America,” Smith said.
Jackson lives in the Englewood neighborhood -- whose violence and unemployment are often highlighted in national coverage of Chicago’s violence.
“I see the direct correlation between unemployment and crime. For me, it’s bigger than stopping Mondelez,” Jackson said. “When they took jobs out of here, they took jobs from Englewood, West Woodlawn, areas that have big problems with violence right now.”
Elce Redmond is a union organizer. He said 300 union workers got pink slips; 91 of those workers were called back. He considers this is measured success.
“Oreo, to Mondelez, is their billion-dollar cookie, sort of iconic brand,” Redmond said. “What we have done is attached Mondelez’ name to the destruction of living-wage jobs in the city of Chicago.”
Laurie Guzzinati is a Mondelez spokeswoman. She said the 600 lost jobs aren’t all from the baker’s union and acknowledged 91 of the 300 laid-off union workers have been recalled because of retirements.
But she brushes aside the idea that the union’s anti-Mondelez campaign had anything to do with it.
“We have no indication that the activities have had any impact on our business,” she said.
But there’s no denying the loss of Nabisco jobs to Mexico has hit home -- in this country and beyond. Even presidential candidates have noted it. Republican Donald Trump has blasted Mondelez for the job losses. And Democrat Hillary Clinton met with Nabisco workers. She called Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld in an attempt to persuade her not to move jobs.
Just this week a couple dozen protesters rallied on Sheridan Road in the North Shore. They were in front of Rosenfeld’s house chanting, “I believe we will win.”
Workers gathered for a global food summit in Chicago this month to discuss Nabisco and Mondelez.
“The reason we that need a global presence is because workers are under pressure all over the globe from Mondelez with their drive to increase profits. And these workers are being adversely affected with that,” said Joe Clark, who flew in from the UK and is with a union representing European Mondelez workers.
The International Union of Food workers was here to brainstorm about global actions against Mondelez. They didn’t tip their hand. But they let it be known they plan to keep on building an effort to keep jobs at home. As they left Sheridan Road, they chanted “We will be back.”
This story is part of “A Nation Engaged,” an ongoing project among NPR and member stations. This week we are exploring the state of economic opportunity in America.