The factory workers picketing across the street from the massive facility cited an unsafe and exploitative work environment, stagnant wages, and being forced to work brutally long hours—sometimes up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo, produces over two dozen brands of the world’s most popular snack foods including leading chip brands such as Lays, Cheetos, Doritos, Ruffles, and Rold Gold pretzels. The company generated $18 billion in revenue last year, but it does not share that wealth with the workers who manufacture, package, and ship the snacks: employees at the Topeka plant have received raises of just 20 to 40 cents per hour over the last decade. “We can’t survive like this,” said Kelly Hubert, who has worked at the factory for 36 years.
The pay and working conditions at Frito-Lay have deteriorated significantly in recent decades. Zach Hodgson says he toured the factory on a fifth grade field trip. He remembers being told he would be lucky to work there someday. Today, Hodgson is on the picket line, expressing his dismay at the treatment he and his co-workers at the factory are forced to endure.
“It used to be a luxury to work here,” Bruni Torez told More Perfect Union. “But when you tell people that you work at this place, they just call you ‘slave.’”
Marathon shifts contribute to the exploitation at Frito-Lay. Mark McCarter, who has been working at the Topeka plant for 37 years, said many employees are compelled to work 12 hour shifts every single day of the week. In some cases, workers are given just eight hours between shifts—referred to by the employees as “suicide shifts.” “You leave at 7pm and they want you back in here at three in the morning,” Esther Fanning told More Perfect Union. “That’s not fair. We need time with our families. We need time with our children.”
The employees are also subject to dangerous working conditions. During ice storms and deep freezes, workers receive small kerosene heaters that do little to warm them in the cavernous factory. In blistering heat, workers cannot leave the production line or take additional breaks, leading to heat exhaustion. According to plant employee Cheri Renfro, when a worker collapsed and died on the line, management had workers move the body and put in another person to keep production moving.
Despite the circumstances, workers on the picket line have maintained a sense of humor and camaraderie. They wield hand-drawn signs featuring Chester Cheetah, the fictional mascot for Frito-Lay’s Cheetos brand snacks; instead of Chester Cheetah’s catchphrase “dangerously cheesy,” one sign says “dangerously greedy.” “Other unions in the area showed up and walked the picketing line with us and folks just come in and give verbal support and assistance,” said union leader Mark Benaka. “There’s been a lot pouring in.”
“This is not something that we wanted to do. This is something we had to do,” Joseph Andrew told More Perfect Union. “If we want fair wages, if we want to be respected when we walk in the building […] we’ll do this as long as we have to.”