CEDAR RAPIDS — More than 500 workers at General Mills voted down the company’s contract proposal by 99 percent Wednesday, sending both parties to the negotiation table in an effort to possibly avoid a strike.
The workers — who are members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s Local 110 — have agreed to meet with company representatives Thursday morning to negotiate a new contract. If an agreement can’t be reached, employees will have no choice but to go on strike, union leaders said during a news conference Wednesday.
The union represents 520 workers at the Cedar Rapids facility at 4800 Edgewood Road SW, and the bargaining unit members perform production, sanitation and maintenance work.
Roger Grobstich, union vice president, said workers object to General Mills’ proposed scheduling changes, insufficient raises, no maintenance of benefits over the term of the contract, and no other provisions to support workers and their families.
“We didn’t see any real protections in the contract,” Grobstich said. “It didn’t contain maintenance (worker) benefits, provisions that support workers and their rights” and no “premium pay” for a possible 12-hour shift.
“We’re hoping we can address those issues with the company,” he said.
General Mills and the union had been negotiating since January, when workers at the Cedar Rapids production plant voted to be represented by the union.
The General Mills workers voted to authorize a strike on Oct. 3.
Larry Ewing, 53, who has worked in maintenance at General Mills for 22 years, said he voted no to the contract proposal because he wants to “stop the bleed.”
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Over the last few years, General Mills has changed the employee attendance policy and has given fewer paid time-off hours, he said.
Ewing said he joined the union because things were “going downhill,” and he wanted to maintain his benefits.
“I hope to walk away with a reasonable contract with good benefits that General Mills can’t change at will,” he said.
What happened at the union hall Wednesday is “the true definition of solidarity,” said Tim Sarver, who has worked at General Mills for 37 years.
“By standing together and showing the company the real impact this could have on our families, we have shown what having a union is all about,” Sarver said. “This contract has the potential to change the lives of so many in our community.”
Kelsey Roemhildt, a spokeswoman for General Mills, said the company has “met with the RWDSU on many occasions to reach our common goal of a ratified contract” and company representatives plan to meet with the union Thursday.
The workers garnered support Wednesday from Democratic presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, who heralded their efforts via Twitter.
“Economic justice is on the ballot when union members aren’t able to get a living wage, better health care and retirement benefits, and weekend overtime pay,” said Harris, a U.S. Senator from California.
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“I am proud to stand with them and all workers in the fight for fair contracts and workplace protections,” wrote Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
The Wednesday contract vote was triggered last week, after General Mills presented a “last, best and final” offer that the workers found lacking.
Chelsea Connor, the union’s communication director in New York, told The Gazette that Local 110 objected to the offer because of proposed scheduling changes, “negligible” wage increases, “a road map for more” subcontracting at the plant and no maintenance of benefits — meaning General Mills could propose changes over the course of the contract.
Several employees picketed Monday evening at multiple spots, including outside the Robins home of plant manager Rue Patel.
General Mills has been in Cedar Rapids for almost 50 years. The Cedar Rapids plant produces cereal, fruit snacks and desserts. There are nearly 700 workers total at the plant.
The union has about 100,000 members nationwide.