Earlier this week, in a meeting of employer-side attorneys and union suppression consultants, Ken Hurley, the vice president of human resources and labor relations at the Kellogg Co., spoke candidly about a new environment that has shifted the traditional power of employers and emboldened workers and labor unions.
In hushed tones, Hurley described the tactics employed by activists during a nearly 10-week cereal plant strike last fall. The strike prevented concessions from workers and forced Kellogg’s to back off a plan to expand its two-tier wage system. “In my view,” Hurley said, “the union leadership at the bargaining table were behaving more like terrorists than partners.”
The conversation was hosted by a human resources and labor relations trade group called CUE. Hurley said he was surprised by the aggressive nature of the union, which generally has not engaged in confrontational tactics or strikes. Hurley claimed that the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union, which represented workers at Kellogg’s cereal plants, “really became somewhat intoxicated” by other strikes last year, including work stoppages at plants owned by Frito-Lay and Nabisco.
What’s more, he said, workers at the plants benefited from outside support that didn’t exist in the recent past. Plant employees and union activists galvanized support on social media, including Facebook and TikTok, while Kellogg’s management had trouble connecting with workers.
And in an unprecedented moment, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh walked in solidarity along the picket line with Kellogg’s workers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. President Joe Biden later in December issued a statement sharply criticizing efforts by Kellogg’s to bring in nonunion replacement workers during the strike.
The Biden statement, said Hurley, was “basically an anti-Kellogg public release. … We were really getting it from both barrels.”
Reached for comment, Kellogg chair and CEO Steve Cahillane issued a statement in response to Hurley’s presentation at CUE. “We are just learning about these statements, as they were not authorized by Kellogg. We are embarrassed as a company – the comments and the tone in which they were delivered do not reflect the values of our organization or our position,” wrote Cahillane. “We sincerely apologize. We have a long and productive history of working with our unions. We fully expect that will continue moving forward.”
Trevor Bidelman, president of BCTGM Local 3G, which represents workers at the Battle Creek, Michigan, Kellogg’s plant, bristled at the description of his union as “terrorists.”
“This is a company that keeps coming to the table with hundreds of millions of dollars of profit yet thinks it’s OK to take away from the worker. That’s what this strike boiled down to,” said Bidelman.
The negotiations centered on a two-tier system of pay for many workers, with lower wages of $9 an hour less than “legacy” employees and partial benefits for “transitional workers.” This was a sticking point for union activists, in addition to higher overall wages. The final contract, signed in December, provides cost-of-living adjustments and a pathway for low-paid transitional workers to become full-time legacy status workers, who make around $33 an hour.
“You know, Ken Hurley fully believes that U.S. Kellogg’s workers have too much and we should be giving things back to make sure the business succeeds,” said Bidelman. “Well, I’m sorry, nobody stood up for 20 years and everybody kept acquiescing to the fact that CEOs get paid $10 million and stock profits.”
“This is a company that keeps coming to the table with hundreds of millions of dollars of profit yet thinks it’s OK to take away from the worker. That’s what this strike boiled down to.”
At the conference, Hurley also spoke in awe and derision of a new media startup that covers labor activism, More Perfect Union, which brought viral attention to the strike by interviewing workers and spotlighting creative attempts on Reddit to stifle strike-breaking attempts by Kellogg’s. More Perfect Union was founded in 2021 by Faiz Shakir, formerly Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign manager.
A reporter for More Perfect Union, Hurley said, “ambushed” him when he went to Washington, D.C., for negotiations with BCTGM. “It’s a George Soros-funded, pro-union activist organization; they had a camera, and a reporter was asking us questions as we entered the room,” said Hurley.
Later, during a question-and-answer portion of the conference, Hurley called More Perfect Union a “worthy adversary” and “very sophisticated.” The media outlet, he added, churns out “very impactful videos, and they’re a force to be reckoned with. … I will say, it’s really impossible for a company, a large company, to combat the kind of cinematography and emotion that comes out of those social media posts when they’re produced so well.”
The negotiation “ambush” interview, he said, “was all set up by the union.”
Kellogg’s comments did not surprise Shakir, who laughed at Hurley’s characterization of his small media team as more powerful than Kellogg’s, which has a market capitalization of over $23 billion and teams of lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations experts. He clarified that his organization has received grant money from the Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic network backed by billionaire George Soros.
“The purpose of covering the stories of working people is to make them feel like they have power, and that’s exactly what these union-busters are responding to.”
More Perfect Union, Shakir said, did not coordinate with the union and does not “accept any funding, not one penny, from any union.” The labor union establishment, added Shakir, doesn’t want his media outlet involved in contract negotiations and is generally opposed to confrontational tactics on behalf of workers.
During the meeting this week, Hurley warned the other employers in attendance — including representatives of John Deere, Ross Stores, and Lowe’s — that companies need to “think in new ways and more creatively about how to connect on a personal level with their workforce.” Kellogg’s, Hurley said, set up a special contract negotiations website, monitored social media posts, and communicated almost every day of the contract talks. But it was too little, too late. “We needed to start that four years ago, eight years ago, 10 years ago, so that we engage our workforce directly.”
“You got to throw out the playbook. You’ve got to get aggressive, you’ve got to take some risks, you’ve got to get your story out there,” said Hurley.
For proponents of labor power, the Kellogg’s executive’s comments simply reinforce the notion that more labor activism yields greater impact and more victories for working-class Americans. “After strikes at Kellogg’s and John Deere and Kroger, and the victory at Amazon, so many workers now take inspiration from each other,” said Shakir.
“The purpose of covering the stories of working people is to make them feel like they have power,” continued Shakir, “and that’s exactly what these union-busters are responding to. They are fearful and afraid of the fact workers might be taking matters into their own hands to reclaim power and rights that are rightfully theirs.”
Update: Sunday, May 1
On Saturday, Kellogg’s plant managers called workers at the plant in Battle Creek, Michigan, to personally apologize for Hurley’s remarks. Hurley, the vice president of human resources and labor relations at Kellogg’s, is no longer with the company following publication of this piece.