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Column: At a subsidiary of a $4-billion corporation, these low-wage workers are striking for better pay

People march with signs.
Workers at Jon Donaire Desserts factory in Santa Fe Springs, who have been on strike since Nov. 3, picket in front of the company Monday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Cristina Lujan, 46, has worked on the line at the Jon Donaire Desserts plant in Santa Fe Springs for 19 years, nearly half her life, making and decorating cakes for food chains such as Ralphs, Walmart and Baskin-Robbins.

Since Nov. 3, however, she has been walking a picket line outside the plant, protesting a contract offer from Donaire’s parent, Rich Products, that comes to a raise of $1.60 an hour over three years — 50 cents an hour in the first year and 55 cents in each of the next two.

She and her fellow 165 unionized employees worked through the pandemic, except for two weeks when the company shut down, though they were required to use vacation time or sick days to keep money coming in.

Everything’s going up, and they think we’re going to make it on a 50-cents raise?

— Cristina Lujan, striking Jon Donaire worker

The workers, mostly Latinas, received “hero pay” — a roughly $2 hourly addition to their standard wage of about $17 an hour — for a six-week period that ended in June.

Working conditions that haven’t even been on the table in contract talks include management’s habit of saddling workers with mandatory overtime assignments within minutes of the end of their shifts, making it nearly impossible for them to schedule medical appointments or arrange child care.

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The main topic of contract talks is wages. “We feel we’re getting underpaid,” Lujan told me simply. The workers have asked for raises of $3 an hour over the life of the contract.

Just before Christmas, the company offered a $4.10 hourly increase over three years but would substitute the existing union-sponsored health plan with one workers considered inferior. The employees overwhelmingly voted it down.

No further talks are scheduled, according to the union and Buffalo-based Rich Products.

The strike has begun to get political support.

The five Los Angeles County supervisors recently wrote Rich in support of the strikers, prompting the company to respond with a letter stating it was “highly disappointed” at the outcome of the last vote.

The company added that as several claims and counterclaims between the company and the union are before the National Labor Relations Board, “public officials should not therefore be taking a side.” (The NLRB, however, is a federal agency, not a county-level body.)

The job-gain narrative is competing with the inflation narrative in assessments of the economy, and the inflation narrative is winning.

The Donaire strike is also starting to receive national attention. Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). along with five other Democratic senators, wrote Tuesday to Bob Rich Jr., chairman of family-owned Rich Products, expressing their support for the strikers.

The senators urged Rich to “reach an agreement as soon as possible on a contract that is fair and that includes good wages, decent benefits, reliable schedules and safe working conditions.” The workers’ goals, they wrote, are “not radical.”

The company is plainly aware that it’s being painted as a heartless monolith in the labor dispute.

“There is a very popular narrative that is trying to make corporations that have created lots of jobs the bad guy in a negotiation,” says Ed Moore, Rich’s chief human resources officer.

Moore says the Donaire strike is the first in the company’s 77-year history, which the company argues shows that its employment practices are fair. More than 50 union members have crossed the picket line, as have Teamsters who perform equipment maintenance on overnight shifts.

“We’ve worked hard to create ... a steadfast commitment to treating our associates, customers and communities the same way — like family,” Jonathan A. Dandes, Rich’s government affairs officer, told the supervisors in the company’s letter.

That said, Rich Products has taken a firmly utilitarian approach to the wage issue at Donaire.

The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, which represents the Donaire workers, has noted that employees at a Rich plant in Murfreesboro, Tenn., earn an average $6 an hour more than those at Donaire, even though the cost of living is higher in Southern California.

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“The way we determine wage rates is to look at the local labor market and make an assessment of what we need to pay to be able to attract and retain quality associates,” Moore told me.

“Every market is different,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily correlate to a cost of living.... In Santa Fe Springs, our wages prior to the negotiation were at or above market, as we understand it.”

He said he asked the international union for data demonstrating that “our wages were not competitive to the market,” but it “was never presented to us.”

The Donaire strike is part of what looks like a reawakening of labor activism. Part of that trend is an expanding awareness of the working conditions and economic pressures on workers at the low end of the wage spectrum.

On Tuesday, for instance, a report by the Economic Roundtable of Los Angeles documented that more than 3 in 4 employees of the grocery conglomerate Krogers met government standards for food insecurity.

That means they “cannot afford balanced and healthy food” and “run out of food before the end of the month, skip meals, and are hungry sometimes,” according to the report, which was based on surveys of nearly 37,000 Kroger workers in Southern California, Colorado and the Seattle area.

The workers’ “exceptionally high rate of food insecurity is seven times greater than the U.S. average,” the report observed. About 14% of the surveyed workers said they had resorted to food stamps or a community food bank.

The bakery workers union has emerged as an aggressive force for redressing years of declining quality of life for low-wage workers.

Over the last year, the union has won contract victories after a nearly five-month strike by 1,400 workers at Kellogg cereal plants, after a nearly five-week strike by 1,000 workers at Mondelez/Nabisco plants and after a 20-day walkout by more than 600 Frito-Lay workers.

Those are just the most obdurate employers, says David Woods, the union’s secretary-treasurer.

“We’ve negotiated dozens of contracts this year with other employers that recognized that the labor shortage in this country has created opportunities for workers to get more and avoid a labor dispute,” Woods told me. “Some companies were looking backwards as if these were normal times. They are not normal times, and workers are just fed up.”

The Donaire strike underscores the widening gulf between the corporate suite and the factory floor. Rich Products is a privately-held firm that books about $4 billion in sales annually, mostly by providing bakery and confectionary products to grocery chains as private-label items.

Leon Cooperman is the latest American billionaire to complain about a wealth tax and “vilification of the rich.”

The company’s chairman, Bob Rich Jr., is ranked 367th on Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index with an estimated net worth of $7.37 billion, and 622nd on Forbes’ billionaires list, at $4.6 billion.

“Jon Donaire epitomizes the kind of corporate greed that is taking place in this country,” Sanders told me in an interview. “Most of the workers are Latino women, who are working for extremely low wages and working really hard during the pandemic. Why somebody who’s worth more than $7 billion and has become $2 billion richer during the pandemic wants to cut back on the needs of his workers, who are already struggling, is beyond my comprehension.”

(Bloomberg estimates that Rich’s net worth was $5.42 billion in mid-March 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic.)

It may be tempting to think of food production as less demanding than quintessentially heavy industries such as automaking. That would be a mistake.

The workers are on their feet through their working shift, causing sciatica and other back problems, performing the sort of repetitive tasks that lead to the pains of carpal tunnel syndrome, as the production line on ice cream cakes moves past them at a rate ranging from 13 to 38 cakes a minute.

“Fingers hurting, with crampy fingers, arthritis, and back pains — they didn’t care,” striking worker Michele S. Gonzalez said from the picket line, referring to plant management, in a video posted online. “They just said, ‘No, we got to keep the machine going.’”

(The company says non-economic issues are not on the table.)

Adding to the stress is what workers describe as a point system that penalizes workers for taking days off from work, even with a medical excuse, or leaving a shift early. Seven points in the course of a year merits dismissal.

The Donaire workers have signaled that these conditions, as well as pay that nestles within a market average, will no longer do. During the pandemic they’ve gone the extra mile for their employers. In return, they feel they’re being nickel-and-dimed. A raise of a dollar an hour would cost Rich $165,000 a year, union official Nate Zeff says.

“Everything’s going up,” Lujan said from the picket line, “and they think we’re going to make it on a 50-cents raise?”


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