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Frito-Lay Strike Could End As Workers Vote On A New Labor Agreement

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Frito Lay workers who have been striking in Topeka, Kan., for more than two weeks are voting today on a new labor agreement. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports the proposed contract eases some working conditions at the plant and would raise salaries. But those concessions may not be enough to compete in a tight labor market.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Unions rule.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: One thing you learn talking to the strikers outside the sprawling Frito-Lay plant in Topeka - the people who make Cheetos, Fritos and chips - they can work some long hours.

HELLEN TEATER: I am a very hardworking woman. I work like hell.

MORRIS: Hellen Teater, done up in a bright red shirt and big white hat, says she has very little time for family.

TEATER: I have no time to go work for them because I've been working seven days a week - like, 84 hours a week.

MORRIS: Eighty-four hours a week. Teater says the money's good, up to double her normal $20 an hour wage with overtime. In a statement, Frito-Lay says only about 2% of its Topeka workers average more than 60 hours a week. But the company routinely forces workers to pick up extra hours and to skip scheduled days off, even those with seniority like Marlon Smith.

MARLON SMITH: I mean, I've been here 22 years, and I still get forced for seven days a week, maybe, like, two or three twelves.

MORRIS: Two or three 12-hour shifts. The contract Smith and others are voting on today would guarantee one day off a week. It would also end what workers call suicide shifts - two 12-hour shifts with only eight hours in between. There's a proposed 4% raise over the next two years, but that may not be enough. Workers have more leverage now, and the signs of that are impossible to miss.

BRAD WIESE: They just put this up last week. We were out here. We watched them put it up.

MORRIS: Brad Wiese is pointing out a new billboard just across from the Frito-Lay plant right where the picketers stand.

WIESE: It says, the J.M. Smucker's Company now hiring multiple positions, shifts and pay rates, comprehensive benefit packages. So that's pretty much telling us, hey; come on out.

MORRIS: Wiese says at least half a dozen companies are actively recruiting disgruntled Frito-Lay workers if they can't get the contract they want today.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Topeka.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "NEVERGREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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