More than 1,400 Kellogg Co. cereal plant workers in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee have been on strike since the beginning of October, protesting for improved working conditions including a better wage scale and better benefits for new workers. The strike comes during a pandemic that has forced many frontline workers to repeatedly choose between their jobs and their health, a reality that’s resulted in a growing public awareness of labor issues and the true cost of whatever-it-takes capitalism. On social media, calls to boycott Kellogg’s products accompany infographics listing the many, many brands the company owns, with users saying they’re going to learn to make their own Froot Loops, or that they already effectively boycott by preferring knockoff cereal brands. Reddit users have also started a movement to flood Kellogg Co. job boards with fake applications in solidarity with striking employees.
While public consciousness might be heightened, the actions of companies like Kellogg prove that boycotts or negative public opinion are not always enough to create lasting change for workers. Kellogg announced in early December that it intends to replace hundreds of striking workers, saying the strikers “left us no choice but to hire permanent replacement employees.” The company goes so far as to mention the strike in its job postings, writing that “Kellogg employees in these plants are on strike, and we are looking for employees to permanently replace them, joining hundreds of Kellogg’s salaried employees, hourly employees, and contractors to keep the lines running.” Kellogg frames the decision as a response to ongoing shortages and supply chain issues created by the pandemic. But their decision to undermine a union strike is part of a much larger issue.
On December 5, two months into the strike, Kellogg workers in the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union voted down a five-year contract offer that would have provided three percent raises and cost of living adjustments in the later stages of the deal. Trevor Bidelman, a fourth-generation employee at the Kellogg plant in Battle Creek, Michigan, told the Guardian in October that workers are striking against the proposal of a two-tiered system for current and new employees, which would not provide pensions to new employees and affect both holiday pay and vacation time. “We don’t have weekends, really,” Bidelman, president of BCTGM Local3G, said. “We just work seven days a week, sometimes 100 to 130 days in a row. For 28 days the machines run then rest three days for cleaning. They don’t even treat us as well as they do their machinery.”
But as easy as it may be for consumers to swap out a breakfast cereal in a show of support to striking workers, Kellogg’s decision to replace employees brings into question the effectiveness of consumer boycotts, especially for a such a far-reaching brand: Its massive portfolio of more than 20 brands includes Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes, Pop Tarts, Cheez-It, Morningstar Farms, and Pringles. In 2017, Kellogg’s controlled about 30 percent of the market share on cereal, making it quite likely you were (and still are) reaching for a Kellogg’s cereal — even if you didn’t know it.
If Kellogg indeed moves forward with plans to lay off workers, measuring the success of any boycotts against the company will prove difficult. But according to research by Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg’s Management & Organizations department — named, coincidentally for the purposes of this article, for the son of the cereal company’s founder — whether a company loses money due to a boycott is actually not a significant indicator of a boycott’s success. “A lot of research in the past has shown that [boycotts] don’t necessarily affect their targets’ bottom lines that much,” King explains in the study, noting that it’s also unclear to what extent boycotts affect consumer behavior. But while a dip in sales might not be the push that’s needed to create lasting change, King says media coverage plays a major role in deciding the outcome. “[T]hose boycotts that get some level of media attention are relatively successful in terms of getting some sort of concession out of their targets… [boycotts are] more likely to exert influence when they receive a great deal of media attention.”
More valuable to these corporations than the money they may lose during a strike and the coinciding boycotts are their reputations. With enough media attention — something the strike has received from the start, including a finger wag from President Biden and an announcement that Bernie Sanders is going to Michigan later this week to stand with workers — boycotts can do lasting damage to corporations. It might not be enough to protect workers at the four Kellogg plants that are striking now, but heightened attention to the treatment of workers could still, eventually, bear fruit for new and remaining workers at the company.
As certain ingredients become hard to find in stores or restaurants close early because there simply isn’t enough staff, it has become impossible during this pandemic to ignore labor — or rather, how very essential all workers are. That awareness is new to some consumers who, in a pre-pandemic world, expected well-stocked shelves and on-demand delivery, without giving a lot of thought to how industries were churning out products and operating so smoothly. A temporary denouncement of Rice Krispies might not have protected these workers’ jobs, but any movement which leads to a greater understanding of working conditions at the companies that produce so much of what we consume is a good thing. If criticism lasts, and calls for improved working conditions at Kellogg remain even after social media buzz diminishes, the company could implement lasting changes to buoy its reputation. The question is, when another underpaying, overworking corporation is in the spotlight and the press has moved on, how many of us will still think twice about a bowl of corn flakes?