The strike at the Kellogg's cereal plant in Memphis and at plants in three other cities has already lasted more than two months and will continue now that workers have rejected a proposed agreement.
The labor stoppage began Oct. 5. The strike appeared close to an end in recent days after a union's national negotiating team reached a tentative agreement with the cereal company and sent the proposed contract to employees for a vote.
But employees across the country have voted down the proposed contract, local union vice president Kevin Bradshaw told reporters outside the Memphis plant on Tuesday morning.
Bradshaw didn't discuss which issues prompted workers to reject the deal. "The majority said they didn't like it. It's the only issue that matters."
For months, the labor dispute has focused on details of the company's proposals for a two-tiered wage and benefit system. Since 2015, the company has had a system in which new workers receive lower wages and benefits than more established workers.
Bradshaw said the strike will go on. "The message we're trying to send and the message that we are saying is that we will last one day longer than them and one day stronger than them."
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The company confirmed the union's rejection in a statement posted on a website, kelloggsnegotiations.com.
"We are disappointed that the tentative agreement for a master contract over our four U.S. cereal plants was not ratified by employees."
The company said the offer was a good one.
"We have made every effort to reach a fair agreement, including making six offers to the union throughout negotiations, all which have included wage and benefits increases for every employee. It appears the union created unrealistic expectations for our employees.
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"The prolonged work stoppage has left us no choice but to hire permanent replacement employees in positions vacated by striking workers . . . While certainly not the result we had hoped for, we must take the necessary steps to ensure business continuity. We have an obligation to our customers and consumers to continue to provide the cereals that they know and love."
Bradshaw expressed doubt that the company could hire enough replacement workers in the current tight labor market.
The strike involves 1,400 workers nationwide. Bradshaw has said the number in Memphis is about 300.
"I mean, they can't hire enough people in one plant, let alone 1,400," Bradshaw said.
Details of two-tiered system are at heart of labor dispute
The Memphis plant produces popular cereals including Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes, and Rice Krispies. The strike here is one of the highest-profile labor disputes in Memphis in recent years.
Beginning Oct. 5, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union has organized strikes in Memphis as well as three other cities: Battle Creek, Michigan, Omaha, Nebraska, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The strike followed lengthy negotiations. The company has a two-tiered system since 2015, Bradshaw said, and the company had moved to make it permanent.
The union and the company had announced a tentative deal on Thursday. One of the key measures of the proposed agreement is that new employees, called "transitionals" would have a defined path toward reaching "legacy" status and its higher pay and benefits, NPR reported.
"Current 'transitional' workers with at least four years at the company would automatically become legacy employees, and each subsequent year of the contract would see 3% of the plant's headcount move up," the broadcaster reported.
The proposed deal also included a 3% wage increase for legacy employees as well as for newer employees.
Details of exactly why the workers rejected the deal weren't immediately clear on Tuesday.
One person who offered some insight was Trence Jackson, 54, who said he's been working at the Memphis plant as a mechanic for 15 years and is on strike.
He declined to say how he voted, but said one area of concern for workers was that the company would not have faced a cap on the number of new "transitional" employees it could hire.
Other shortcomings in the agreement included a lack of a signing bonus, he said. In these situations, companies sometimes offer extra cash to employees to encourage them to sign off on a deal.
And some workers who had incurred medical expenses on their own during the strike would not have been adequately compensated, he said.
Jackson said he hopes negotiations can continue. "So I'm hoping everything can come to a resolution by the end of the year. That's voting, ratification and everything by the end of the year."
Investigative reporter Daniel Connolly welcomes tips and comments from the public. Reach him at 529-5296, email@example.com, or on Twitter at @danielconnolly.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kellogg says it will replace striking workers after they reject deal