General Mills workers repel attack on conditions
General Mills workers repel attack on conditions

Most of the time, they work producing taco kits and ravioli for supermarkets around the country under the Old El Paso and Latina Fresh brands. But for 21 days in June, about 100 United Workers Union (UWU) members at the General Mills plant in the western Sydney suburb of Rooty Hill took the fight to one of the world’s biggest food manufacturers, and won.

Workers at General Mills had never been on strike before, and previous bargaining rounds have been a formality—“usually over in a few weeks”, as one striking worker told Red Flag. In the past, they have given up wage increases when profits have been low, and many expected the same courtesy to be offered in reverse, now that profits are through the roof.

During 2020—which began with devastating bushfires and then saw the COVID-19 pandemic—production at the plant was in overdrive. The increase in work was so intense that overtime rosters were drawn up three months in advance, and some workers put in six and a half day weeks back-to-back. Management, explained one worker, “stayed and worked from home, [while] we came in and made sacrifices”.

The workers’ sacrifices brought a profit windfall to General Mills. The Rooty Hill site posted $40 million in profit in 2020, and General Mills made enormous global profits of US$2.6 billion—up 40 percent in five years. For their efforts, the workers were “rewarded” with an unprecedented attack on pay, redundancy payouts, and working conditions (the only consolation: a gift card at Christmas, according to workers on the picket).

Workloads have increased for years at Rooty Hill. According to multiple workers who spoke to Red Flag, a favourite adage of management is: “We want you leaving here tired”. Management were eager to test the strength of the union with their hardball approach. Some even speculated that the site’s general manager wanted to prove herself ahead of a move overseas and a promotion. Add to this the expectation among workers that the company would share some of their soaring profits, and the conditions were laid for confrontation.

The union submitted very modest claims: for a continuation of existing working conditions and a 3 percent annual wage rise—just above inflation. The offer the company made in response was an insult: pay increases of 2 percent in the first year, then just 1.25 percent in the second and third, which would result in a real wage cut over the life of the agreement; a savage attack on redundancy, which sought to cap payouts at 26 weeks, equivalent to what workers would be entitled to after just seven years at the company; and a lengthening of shifts by 50 percent.

For a site where many workers have been there ten, fifteen, or twenty years, the cap on redundancy represented an enormous attack that could leave them in poverty come retirement. Workers met the company’s “grandfather” clause, which claimed that no current workers would be impacted by the change, with scepticism. On the picket, people told stories of former colleagues and acquaintances who’d had their redundancies cut after “grandfathered” changes opened the door to all-out attack, including one harrowing example of a Shell worker whose million dollar redundancy payment was slashed by three quarters after 50 years working there.

The company’s proposal to increase shifts from eight to twelve hours also angered workers, who, as one striker put it, had already been “worked bare bone” in 2020. The move would slash the significant overtime rates that General Mills workers currently receive.

Faced with this attack on their conditions, and furious at the pay offer, workers at General Mills walked out on 4 June. An estimated 95 percent of permanent staff are in the union, and union members’ participation in the strike was strong throughout. Clearly, management thought they had the measure of the workers. For nearly two weeks, they refused to even respond to the union’s demands. But they underestimated the determination of the strikers, who staffed the picket in shifts—day and night—for the entire three weeks.

A major challenge they faced was that casuals continued to work throughout the strike. The union had conceded to casualisation in previous bargaining rounds—around half the workforce at Rooty Hill are casuals, who, despite some noble exceptions, were reluctant to join the strike.

With casuals inside, shutting down production would rely on stopping the supply of semolina and other supplies to the plant. Early attempts to physically block trucks gave way to retreat under the threat of fines and arrests. Union organisers acknowledged “frustration” among the rank and file at a meeting on the picket, but offered no alternative for escalation, instead reiterating the legal consequences of a “hard” picket.

Limited production, estimated at around one third capacity, continued while UWU members dug in outside, giving management some reprieve. For a time the strike seemed at an impasse, as the company refused to respond to the union’s demands and production stumbled on. But eventually the company buckled, worn down by attrition.

On balance, the Rooty Hill workers successfully repelled management’s attack. Their determination is a lesson for workers everywhere facing a familiar situation: if you strike, you can win.

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