Scenes from the Nabisco picket line in Portland, where supporters clashed with company security guards.
Scenes from the Nabisco picket line in Portland, where supporters clashed with company security guards. Jordan Brokaw

Nabisco workers have ratified a tentative agreement on a new contract with their parent company Mondelez International, ending a strike that began in Portland more than five weeks ago and spread across the country.

Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) voted to approve the contract proposal Thursday and Friday, despite workers in Portland urging members in other locations to vote against the deal—arguing that it still demanded too many concessions.

But when the votes were counted Saturday at the union’s headquarters in Kensington, Maryland, that vocal segment of Portland members was defeated. The contract passed overwhelmingly, with roughly 75 percent approval.

“It’s disappointing, to be honest,” BCTGM Local 364 Vice President Michael Burlingham said. “I’m not surprised, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.”

Workers in Portland first walked out of the Nabisco bakery on NE Columbia Blvd. in August over a Mondelez contract offer that would have given new workers a lesser healthcare plan, shift certain employees to an alternative workweek, and cut back overtime opportunities. They were quickly joined on strike by workers in four other Nabisco factories.

The four-year contract they have now tentatively approved contains several clear victories for workers. The union’s healthcare plan will remain unchanged for both current employees and new hires, and, according to Local 364 Business Manager Cameron Taylor, there should also continue to be overtime opportunities for workers who want them.

The contract does, however, allow for the formation of weekend crews—groups of workers that will work three 12-hour shifts from Friday through Sunday or Sunday through Monday and will be paid for 40 regular hours of work. Workers can bid to be part of the crew, and no one can be compelled to join it.

Burlingham said that the weekend crew, which he called a “stepping stone” to a broader alternative workweek, was the reason why many in the Portland bakery voted against the deal.

But both he and Taylor were clear on one thing: the contract that was ultimately approved is leagues better than what Nabisco workers would be facing had they not gone on strike.

“[The strike] sent a message to all corporations that workers are not going to get pushed around, even if these corporations are multi-billion corporations,” said Taylor. “I think the strike was a success, we couldn’t accept what the company was stuck on… and we got them to move off of it.”

Burlingham said that, the favorable healthcare terms of the contract aside, the fact that Mondelez had to face BCTGM’s negotiating team at all showed how powerful the strike was.

“In the nine years we’ve been under Mondelez, this is the very first time they have actually sat down and negotiated in good faith with our negotiating team… and it took them five weeks to do it,” he said.

In the end, there did appear to be a schism between workers in Portland and workers in other locations over how far to push the strike.

“We always knew that Portland is a different climate than the rest of the country,” Burlingham said. “We knew that there was fight in us here, and we had a lot of backing from supporters in the community to help us. I can’t speak for the other locations, but if I had to guess, they might not have had that same kind of boost that we did here.”

The strike in Portland turned increasingly hostile in its final weeks, as security guards hired by Mondelez physically clashed with multiple strike supporters who blocked the path of vans and buses carrying replacement workers arriving to or leaving from the facility.

In advance of the vote, Local 364 business manager Cameron Taylor said that union leadership instructed picketers and supporters to move away from the main entrance of the bakery to “calm things down.”

“The situation… was pretty volatile, and it was hampering our ability to get an amnesty deal,” Taylor said. “Things happen during a strike—the company filed charges against us, we filed charges against the company—so for all of that stuff to go away, we moved our pickets away from one area where they seemed to be causing problems.”

As the strike continued, it also received an increasing amount of attention from people in Portland, many of which boycotted Nabisco products and attended weekly rallies on the picket line.

“Everybody was watching this particular one given how big it was. It wasn’t just a single factory. There were six locations involved here, and we had Mondelez people from other countries, Venezuela, Argentina, Australia, reaching out to us… saying we support you and we have a movement coming and we would appreciate your support,” Burlingham said.

Local 364 workers do not yet know when they will return to work at the bakery, nor what the facility looks like after replacement workers ran it for the better part of five weeks.

When they do return, however, Burlingham said that he will walk into the bakery with “his head held high.”

“I hope that other people are inspired to fight for what you deserve,” he said.