Hundreds of workers at the Frito-Lay manufacturing and distribution plant in Topeka, Kansas, have been on strike since July 5. Workers at Frito-Lay have endured years of disrespect, and many at the plant have seen their wages stagnate and fall behind other employers in the area. On top of that, workers have been caught in a horrible cycle that was greatly exacerbated by COVID 19: While more people stayed home during the pandemic and ate a lot more chips, the incredibly high turnover at Frito-Lay means that folks who stayed on have been forced to work longer hours, with some pulling 12-hour shifts seven days a week for weeks on end. In this urgent episode, we talk with Cheri Renfro, who has worked at the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka for 9 years and is currently on strike.

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Transcript

Announcer:         It’s time to check the Working People voicemail. Send us a voice message, and we might play your message on the show. Let’s see if we have any messages.

Voicemail:         You have one new message.

Mark:             Hello. My name’s Mark. I’m from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I use he/him pronouns, and right now I work a couple of different part-time jobs saving up money for grad school. I want to talk about just a fun little piece of joy I had in my life the other week. I was out with some friends at a bar, and we were thinking about what we were going to do for my birthday which was coming up, and we wanted to go out to drink. And we didn’t know, could we do a theme or some sort of, make it a theme night. And there was a bunch of people at the bar who were all wearing shirts from the boilermakers union. They worked at the shipyard that was about an hour away from us. They were being real rowdy and having a real good time, and it struck me. I was like, oh, that’s it. That’s the energy I want for my birthday.

So, me and my twin sister went out to drinks with a couple of our friends, and the theme was union strong, and it was really nice. I shared all of my union pins, and a bunch of people had union shirts on, and we had a real good time. We sang Solidarity Forever while we were walking between bars, and I just wanted to let all the union folks out there know that there’s a young generation out here who are really primed to get really invested in labor politics, and we’re coming up, and we’re ready to fight with you. I’m not in a union yet, but I’m going to teacher education starting in August, and I can’t wait to sign that union card. So, anyway, solidarity with everyone. Hope you have joy in this next week.

Announcer:         Thanks for your message, Mark. Solidarity to you and your comrades, and happy birthday. We can’t wait for you to sign that union card, too. If you would like to send us a voicemail, check the show notes for the link. This concludes the voice message portion of the show.

Maximillian Alvarez:    All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and supported entirely by listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network, so if you want to listen to more worker and labor-focused shows just like ours, follow the link in the show notes, definitely go check out the great shows in our network. There are a lot of folks doing really important work, and as our theme music reminds us every week, we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ve got to get as much coverage as possible on these important workers’ stories and struggles. And the good folks across the Labor Radio Podcast Network are doing that week in and week out, and we’re honored to be part of that struggle with them.

Speaking of covering workers’ stories, if you want to support the work that we are doing here at Working People so that we can keep growing and keep bringing you more of these conversations on a weekly basis, then there are a few things that you can do. You can leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts, which helps listeners find the show. You can share these episodes on your social media and with your coworkers, friends, and family members. And of course, the best thing that you can do to support the show is become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just five bucks a month. All you got to do is go to patreon.com/workingpeople. That’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/workingpeople. Hit the subscribe button, and you will immediately get access to all of the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve recorded and published for our amazing subscribers over the years, and we’ve got more of those coming your way. So definitely go subscribe and help us build this thing.

My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and we’ve got an important episode for you all today. Before we get down to business, I just wanted to give a big shout out to Mark for that great voice message that we played at the top of the show. I absolutely love that story, and frankly, I think it’s about time that we have more union-themed parties. And more parties with unions and union members, because they know how to party. But for real, that kicks ass, and listening to Mark’s message really brought a smile to my face. So, from all of us here at Working People, we want to wish Mark a happy birthday, and we are cheering you on every step of the way with your new teaching job.

To everyone else out there listening, please do send us more voicemails using the link that we post in the show notes every week to our online voicemail service on SpeakPipe. If you have a story to share about your job, your boss, organizing that you’re doing with your coworkers, other issues that you want us to know about, or if you want to just share your thoughts about the show or what’s going on in your world, then leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show. We love hearing from you guys.

All right. Well, as we posted on Twitter earlier this week, our episode this week was a little delayed because we needed a little extra time for it to come together, but believe me when I say that it’s well worth the wait. As you all may have heard by now, hundreds of workers at the Frito-Lay manufacturing and distribution plant in Topeka, Kansas, have been on strike since July 5. Workers at Frito-Lay have endured years of disrespect, and most classifications of workers at the plant have seen their wages stagnate and fall behind other employers in the area.

On top of that, workers have been caught in this horrible cycle that was greatly exacerbated by COVID-19. While more people were staying home during the pandemic, and apparently eating a shit ton of chips, the incredibly high turnover at Frito-Lay has meant that the folks who have stayed on have been forced to work longer hours to cover the difference, with some pulling 12-hour shifts seven days a week for weeks on end. As Dan DiMaggio writes in a really great article for Labor Notes, quote, “One of the most hated forms of forced overtime at the plant is being forced to work, quote, ‘suicide.’ That’s when the company makes a worker stay four hours on top of their eight-hour shift, and then forces them in four hours early before their next shift, leaving them only eight hours off,” end quote. I mean, if that doesn’t sound horrible enough, then, I don’t know, check your pulse, because that sounds awful.

We have linked to Dan’s article in the show notes, and I’d highly recommend that you all check it out, and I want to thank Dan for connecting us with Cheri Renfro, who’s worked at the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka for nine years, and is currently on strike with her coworkers in Topeka. It was a real honor chatting to Cheri, and I’m going to let her tell you all about the strike and the working conditions at Frito-Lay. But before we get going, I just wanted to ask everyone listening out there to help us spread the word and show your support for these striking workers. Donate to the strike fundraiser in the show notes if you can. If you can’t, please share it on your social media accounts. Join the boycott against Frito-Lay by not buying their products, and tell them to do right by the workers who have made them successful, workers like Cheri. This is her story.

Cheri Renfro:    My name is Cheri Renfro. I am an employee at the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas, and we are now on strike.

Maximillian Alvarez:     All right. Well, Cheri, it’s so great to talk to you. Thank you so much for making time for chatting with me, especially with everything going on with the strike. I know that you were on the picket line earlier today. So, there’s so much I want to ask you about that, and want to make sure that listeners got all the information that they need, and they know how to show support for y’all. But like you and I were kind of talking just before we got recording here, one of the things that we really love to do on this show is really get to know more about the people who make this country run, the people who are doing these jobs. How you got into doing that work, and all that sort of good stuff. So, I’m going to start small, and I’m going to ask, are you originally from Topeka?

Cheri Renfro:     Originally, yes.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Uh-oh.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah. I live outside –

Maximillian Alvarez:  So, that sounds like you took a detour.

Cheri Renfro:      Well, I moved away for a couple years, and then I moved back, and right now I don’t live in Topeka. I live just outside of Topeka.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Okay, sweet.

Cheri Renfro:    Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I know that one of the ways that we were able to connect is actually through Dan DiMaggio, who wrote a great article in Labor Notes that we’re going to link to. Everyone should go check it out. He pointed out that over there in Topeka, y’all are really… You’re in an interesting position in the country, and there’s actually a reason why there’s a lot of manufacturing over there. Was it always like that when you were growing up there?

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah, I think so. I mean, we had other plants that have moved on. I know we had Jostens yearbook. They had a plant there, but then they downsized to more computer work, so that made it smaller. They didn’t have to have a big plant there. Yeah. I mean, it’s always been pretty central. I mean, look back at the history of stockyards and railroads, and Topeka was popping along right in there with everybody else. So, it’s always been a pretty central place in the United States because of the major intersections, highways.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah. You’re just smack dab in the middle of the crossroads of the railroads and stuff. Right?

Cheri Renfro:      Right. Yep. We’re like the center of the spoke of a wheel. [both laugh] Yep, like a middle hub.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I guess, give listeners a sense of the place for folks who have never been to Topeka. I guess, what sorts of industries are over there, apart from Frito-Lay?

Cheri Renfro:      Well, we have Goodyear, who is a major employer here in Topeka. They’ve been around a long time. I think in the ’40s is when they got started. We’ve got a Target distribution. We’re going to have a Walmart warehouse open up pretty soon. We have Mars Chocolate factory, and we have [inaudible 00:12:44] Bakery, and that’s…

Maximillian Alvarez:     Is that it? [laughs]

Cheri Renfro:     No, there’s more. I’m trying to think of all the places. There’s several places, and there’s places I have never even heard of. We have PTMW. They do work on building for the railroad. There’s quite a few businesses here, and we also have a workforce. We have a good workforce around here, and I think people also like that. Manufacturers like that, so they’re happy to move into Topeka.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Well, actually, that was what I was going to ask you about, is having been born there, did you have family roots with the other manufacturers there or warehouses there? I guess, are you part of a family tradition of working at these places?

Cheri Renfro:    Yeah. My father worked at Goodyear for [forty years], and my mother, I think, for about 10 years, and my brother works at Goodyear, and my husband works at Goodyear, so Goodyear’s definitely blood in our veins here in this family.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Wow. Does the blimp over come by there?

Cheri Renfro:      Does what?

Maximillian Alvarez:     Does the blimp over come by there?

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah, we did have it come through, I think a long time ago, on a special event they had. Yeah, they’ve been through here.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I’m always curious. I’ve told this story a lot on the show. I grew up in the non-union side of the family, and I didn’t realize until later in life that actually, a fair amount of my family members did have union jobs. So, it was like learning about that later in life was really interesting to me, and I’m curious, with Goodyear, was there a union presence there? Did you all have union members in the family?

Cheri Renfro:     Oh, yeah. There’s a big union presence there at Goodyear, and my family, my dad, we went through strikes. I’ve never gone through strikes, especially when they were trying to get the cold put into the contract. I think that was one of the longer strikes they had, but to make ends meet, I remember we used to go out, my dad would take us kids, and we would go mow yards and [inaudible] people’s garages and all those things we did to get through the strike, but my dad was always proud. He’s always said that was the right thing to do, and we just dealt with it. It seemed normal to us, I guess. Every few years it seemed they would be going on strike sometimes, and we just took it in stride and got through it.

I think that’s why I wasn’t quite as scared of the strike, because I know we’ve been through it. My husband’s been through it. It’s just a lot of people that have not, it is scary. It is a leap of faith, and that part, I know it’s a lot for some people to comprehend, to try to get to that point. But no one really wants to strike, and I get that, but sometimes you have to. When the company’s not willing to work with you, and you want to achieve something for the people, you have to go on strike. That’s the only way they’re going to notice you, because they’re not going to ever give you anything easily, especially when it comes to rights, when it comes to pay, safety.

Maximillian Alvarez:    I got to ask, what was it like? Could you talk a little more about any memories that you have of when your dad would go on strike, and, I guess, just the kinds of things that he would talk about? Would you go on the picket line with them?

Cheri Renfro:      I don’t remember dad every taking us to the picket line. I don’t think he wanted to expose us to some of the things being said and all that, because I was pretty small. My brother was probably a little older. I don’t remember them going and standing with the picket line either. I think he went down by himself, didn’t want to expose us kids in case there was something inappropriately said on the line.

Maximillian Alvarez:    That’s fair.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I guess there are some expletives on the picket line.

Cheri Renfro:     Right, right.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I mean, it can get really heated and even dangerous. I mean, my God. We’ve been seeing footage of striking coal miners in Alabama getting hit with cars. I don’t know if it got to that level when your dad was on strike, but I guess I understand maybe not wanting to take kids there.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. I know they got pretty upset at people crossing the line there, so I know there was a lot of harassment. Yeah. We’ve got to think about, they’re like 99.7% union members, so they really [inaudible] jobs and protect themselves and don’t want scabs coming in and trying to do their jobs. So, they were definitely going to protect their territory, their employment.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I have to ask, because you mentioned that when it was strike time you and your siblings would be mowing lawns to help out. So, are we talking… I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in Kansas, so I’ll be honest. I love what I saw of it, but I do know that the lawns or the kinds of areas that you would mow can be pretty darn big. So, are we talking Kansas-size lawns or what?

Cheri Renfro:    Yeah. Yeah. Some of these yards are pretty big, or sometimes we’d mow for churches or businesses too, and every one of us, dad made sure every one of us had a lawnmower except for me, because I was [inaudible]. I would just go around and pick up the sticks and the trash and anything that’s in the way of the lawnmower. Each of my brothers had either a push mower or a riding mower that my dad had, and we made quite a bit. I mean, we got by with it, so we must’ve done pretty good, and then he would always treat us afterwards. We’d go to Dairy Queen, and that would be our treat.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yes.

Cheri Renfro:     Some cold ice cream on a hot day. We were happy kids. We thought that was pretty awesome.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. It didn’t take much to win me over as a kid, and Dairy Queen always did it.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah, it definitely did. I have some favorite treats there.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I’m an Oreo Blizzard guy myself. My sister and I, we have a special ingredient that we put in there. I can’t tell you the secret. Now, if we meet in person I’ll tell you, but I can’t let the listeners know. It makes me think, and if this is too in the weeds we can totally move past it, but hasn’t been Kansas been right-to-work for a long time? Was that an issue that… I guess, was that something that you remember your folks talking about?

Cheri Renfro:      I think I was an adult when that came through and we passed that, because I don’t think my dad had to deal with the right-to-work laws. I think I was probably in my late twenties, early thirties, I think, when that came through. But it sounds great, right-to-work. It’s like, nobody [shouldn’t be able to] work, but it’s such a disguise. It’s just such a false name. Completely, it’s just the right-to-work you to death, is what that really means, and I think Kansas was kind of duped. I think when we came through it [inaudible] that meant, the right-to-work laws, when they got passed, in my view, it was just to take away all the union rights, to help out the unions. It just really gave corporations so much more power to control things, and that was definitely a downhill slide for unions here in Kansas.

Maximillian Alvarez:     You’re right. Yeah. It’s like it was crafted in a lab to convince people that it’s the opposite of what it actually is.

Cheri Renfro:    Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. I mean, they’re good at coming up with those slogans. I’ll tell you what. So, let’s talk a bit about your path to eventually working at Frito-Lay. So, I guess, from the early days of mowing lawns to now, I guess, what was your path to doing the work that you’re doing now?

Cheri Renfro:     Well, I actually started working in the yearbook factory, Jostens, worked there for about nine seasons, and then I got married, started having kids, and it’s just cheaper for me to stay home. So, I stayed home for 17 years, and then when the kids got to be around high school years, they’re driving themselves to school, to practice, they’re taking care of themselves, we were pretty tight on money all those 17 years, so as time was… Okay, it’s time for me to go back to work and help provide a little bit more for the family so we can pay off some things and perhaps get a little bit newer vehicle, not new, but newer. So, I started applying [inaudible]. In this day and age, I think it was so much harder than when I was younger. Everything was online, and you had to put in applications. You had to type them out on the computer and send them in, and for me, that was difficult, but I finally get into…

I wanted to go work at Goodyear like my family, but at the time they weren’t hiring, so I did put an application in for Frito-Lay, and I landed a job there and started working there. I thought it was pretty good. The pay was pretty good. The work was difficult, but it was doable, like, I can do this. I can do this. A couple years went by, and my daughter was looking for a job, and so I thought, hey, why don’t you come down and work at Frito-Lay with me? I said, just try it out. See if you like it. So, she did, and she also got on there, and same thing. I think she felt pretty glad to be there, and the pay was decent, and the work was, like I said, doable. It was hot, cold, but we were used to being… We’re country people, so that’s not totally out of our realm, with the heat and the cold. So, she’s been there for seven years. I’ve been here almost nine.

But unfortunately, as time went on, as each contract rolls by, and minimal raises, if any, we’re talking 10, 12 cents, [inaudible]. They put call it lump sum, which is pretty minuscule. It’s like what somebody would describe as a pittance. Then you’re taxed heavily on it, so it’s only maybe a couple hundred dollars, if that, and that’s for the whole year, and it’s not a raise. So, it doesn’t count towards your overtime. It doesn’t count towards your regular hours. It doesn’t raise your pay up. It’s just, here’s a couple hundred dollars here. That’s your raise for the whole year.

As time has gone on, we’re not competitive anymore, and it used to be when I came to work there, there was a huge class of us people starting off in orientation, and we all kind of competed. I mean, the best workers are going to be the ones to get the jobs. If you look at this past year, two, three, four, even, the groups are smaller that come in, and not really the best worker that gets hired. It’s whoever’s left, because everyone would leave. No one was going to stick around with all the overtime, forced overtime, not when there’s better pay down the road, and they got a better offer from someone else when they were applying. Yeah. We just can’t keep people at all, and everybody says it’s from COVID, and I disagree because we’ve had 350 people or more come into Frito-Lay and leave this past year. So, we’re getting them in. They’re just not staying.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Wow. 350?

Cheri Renfro:      Yeah, over, the last meeting we had a couple months ago, I was told 350 people, so I know it’s been more since then. You have to wonder, I would wonder, if it was my business, why are 350 people walking into this plant and turning around and walking back out? What is going on? What do they not like about it? That’s a lot of training. That’s interviews. That’s drug testing, background checks they’re paying for, and I don’t understand, and training, and then just have them turn around and say, you know what? We didn’t sign up for this, and that’s why they’re leaving. We tell them all the time, it’s like, you guys aren’t competitive in wages anymore. Oh, that’s not it. That’s not it. It’s like, yeah, it is it. We don’t have [competitive wages]. Because you got to balance the overtime that we have, the forced overtime. When you can force 12-hour-day, seven-day weeks, and we had good pay, you kind of figured, well, at least I’m getting paid good and it kind of balanced out. You’re paid, basically, for being on call, and when you lower the pay, it’s not compensating that no more.

I can go down the road and probably get any run-of-the-mill job for almost the pay I’m making right now, and [inaudible] off, the holidays off, and probably a first shift too. Why would you want to stay at Frito-Lay? I wouldn’t. If I was younger… I’m trying to get, actually, my daughter out of there, saying, hey, you need to go somewhere else, because nothing’s changing. Every contract is just staying… It’s just the same BS. It’s the same minimal raises, and they don’t want to compromise. They don’t want to do fair bargaining. They’re like, this is it. Take it or leave it, and that’s the way it’s been. I think finally this year, people just… As overtime is just hitting everybody, and the slap in the face again, the same… We thought this year they would be appreciative. We worked through COVID. We never shut down. We worked through the deep freeze we had [inaudible]. We worked through all the heat and never shut down.

We thought maybe this year they’re going to really appreciate it and show us, hey, here’s a good raise. You guys have earned it. No. We get the same 12 cents, 15 cents. They finally at the end bumped it up, I think… For some departments, it was around 41 cents. Some people, it was 37 cents. But that’s not even the cost of living. [inaudible] last decade in any of these raises, and that just baffles me, that they don’t care, that they’re not investing in their people. Don’t you want your people to stay? Don’t you want your people to recommend this place to someone else? I guess they don’t. I guess they don’t care. I guess they think we’re a dime a dozen, and they’re looking to save every dime they can.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. Jeez. That level of turnover is just astounding. You have to really just see workers as just kind of like bodies that you’re throwing into this machine, and that it’s spitting them out, and it’s just… If you don’t take a look in the mirror and say, maybe there’s a problem with so many people leaving. Like you said, ultimately, if you have a bunch of people coming in and a bunch of people leaving, the constant there is the company. So, maybe there’s something there that needs to be changed, but it sounds like they’re just putting it all on you guys.

Cheri Renfro:     Correct, and especially during COVID. I mean, when people aren’t applying at places, we had 350 people apply. So, they are applying. They’re looking for a job. It’s just Frito-Lay is not the job for them, and I don’t blame them. I really don’t.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, I want to circle back around to talk about those specifics regarding the strike and the contract and what it was like working during COVID, but I actually wanted to maybe zoom out for a second to give listeners some more context about what the job itself is like, and the kind of stuff that you do on a day-to-day basis. Maybe we’ll talk about the before times, before COVID just totally turned everything topsy-turvy, but you said you’ve been working there for nine years. Is that right?

Cheri Renfro:     Correct.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Okay. So, I guess, before COVID, what did a typical week look like for you?

Cheri Renfro:      Oh, actually, not too bad. I mean, I think we did… We always have push weeks, which are usually all day or a special event like the Super Bowl, where our orders are increased, so we actually have a higher output, and we are hit with overtime, and we all understand this. I mean, [inaudible] knows this is a rule, and that we do [overtime], whether it’s forced or volunteered, and maybe sometimes may have a shortage of workers [inaudible] so we get the people employed there to get jobs filled. But yeah, the overtime, like I said, it’s hitting us. I mean, it wasn’t a consistent overtime, and after the holiday you usually had a slow period, so we actually could take off a little bit more, and these are scheduled vacation or even voluntary crew down if it got really, really slow. But this past two years have actually been busy. I mean, when COVID hit, our sales increased because everybody was staying home and not eating out.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Sorry. Cheri, you cut out there for a second. You said that during COVID the orders and sales increased, right?

Cheri Renfro:    Correct. During COVID, our sales and orders increased, and people were taking off for COVID because they weren’t for sure if they were sick, so we actually had a shortage of labor with that, and increased volume. So, that was not a good combination. We had to fill in with overtime. But yeah, that was a shock. I thought for sure we wouldn’t be… I didn’t realize people want their chips, and during COVID or not, I guess it’s a comfort food. Who knew?

Maximillian Alvarez:     Well, I was going to say, I’m over here… I’m trying not to confess like an asshole, but I’m like, well, I know that as a good Mexican-American, I am addicted to hot Cheetos, and I sure as hell ate a lot of them in quarantine. So, I was thinking, I was like, yeah, that tracks. It tracks that people would eat a lot more chips during COVID.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah. I think somebody stated that chips and alcohol never go down during a pandemic. They always sell really good.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I mean, you’re making and packing a bunch of different types of chip over there.

Cheri Renfro:    Right. It’s manufacturing and a huge warehouse distribution, so we’re a little bit of both, and there’s a wide variety of chips we make out there. I’m not even sure of all the chips we make. I mean, it’s Sun Chips, it’s Cheetos, potato chips, Scoops, corn chips. Yeah. We have quite a variety. There’s not much we don’t have, actually, out there.

Maximillian Alvarez:    I mean, I know there are parts of it that you can’t talk about like their trade secrets and stuff like that, but what does it look like inside a chip-making factory?

Cheri Renfro:     Well, they call it the kitchen, but it looks nothing like your kitchen at home. I’ll tell you that [both laugh]. [inaudible] a line that’s like… Wow. It’s like 90 feet long, processing, and it goes up to conveyors and circles around down to the baggers, and [inaudible] machines where it goes into boxes, and goes out to belts, and belts go to the warehouse, and then it gets stacked, and then my department is actually… We don’t make anything. We are a service, and we sell to the smaller Mom-and-Pop stores, Walmart. We do small, individual bag orders. So, if you don’t want to order a whole case of Doritos, you think it’s going to sit on a shelf and stale out, you can order just one bag, and we put it into another case. So, we apply it to the smaller stores and ship out, and that’s my department. That’s where I’m the operator, so I help keep things running, the belts running, things get labeled correctly and get sent to the door so they can get loaded and put in the trailers and off to the stores.

Maximillian Alvarez:     So, I know you said during COVID sales increased, and then even before COVID, you said it was understood that there are just certain points in the year where people are ordering a lot more chips, like the Super Bowl. Right?

Cheri Renfro:    Correct.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. That’s like chip Christmas, I guess, for… I guess, even beyond that, I’m starting to think about it, and I think the one thing that I just try to stress for listeners is, think about all the places you can buy Frito-Lay products, anywhere you are, from corner stores to supermarkets to gas stations. I don’t know. I guess my mind starts to reel when I think about all the different places that you guys are stocking. I mean, I know you’re not the only Frito-Lay factory in the country, but like we said, you’re very centrally located. You guys must be pumping out chips like no one’s business.

Cheri Renfro:     Oh, we are. Oh, yeah. There’s trucks leavings all day long, all the time. I mean, you sit there five minutes, you’re going to see two or three trucks leave. Yeah. We’re the world’s second-largest manufacturing plant for Frito-Lay, so we do pump out a lot of chips.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Dang. I guess, what was it like being in that kind of environment when COVID started to set in? I guess, could you put yourself back in that timeframe? Do you remember when things started to change on the shop floor, or just in Topeka in general? What was it like to be working at the Frito-Lay factory when the world got turned upside-down?

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah. Everybody knows the talk, the rumors, okay, COVID’s bad, COVID’s bad, and, oh, COVID’s just like the flu. It’s just a cold, but then it starts to set in, and it gets closer, and our numbers are going up, and then we went through the lockdown. We’re all worried. I mean, if anybody at work would cough or sneeze, man, we’d all jump back. They’re like, no, it’s just allergies. We’re like, mm-hmm (affirmative). You just stay away from me all day long, and it would be. I mean, we’d be afraid. People would start bringing hand sanitizers, because you’re touching the screens and railings that everybody else has been touching all day long, and it’s a very communal place.

I mean, there’s not a lot of individual areas you just work, that’s just you only touching those areas. I mean, there’s three different shifts of people coming through. Yeah. When it first started coming through, they started to have to do temperature checks when we came to the plant. They separated all the tables and chairs in the break room, and that’s when it starts to hit, like, wow, this is real. This is really setting in. This is starting to get scary. I know there was talk about shutting down, because we are chips. We’re not a major food people need. We’re just a junk food, really, and so we’re thinking we’re probably going to get shut down like everybody else.

I guess they went and talked to whoever and said, nope. They come across as, we are a comfort food, and perhaps people need their comfort food during COVID. So, we never shut down. And of course, we’re all required to wear a mask, and to work in a hot environment with a mask, it’s very difficult. Wintertime wasn’t so bad. It kept us warmer then, but boy, in the summer it was just sweltering, and then to climb up and down stairs and ladders, and you’re trying to catch your breath because the mask doesn’t allow [inaudible] well, your glasses fog up. Yeah. It got pretty challenging for us, trying to separate us, trying to keep us apart, which is hard to do. I mean, sometimes you’re stacking cases or skids, and you’re going to have to be around somebody a little bit.

They did provide some COVID relief, like if you did get sick, some time off, which we thought was nice of them, but then as time went on we realized they just wanted to keep making chips, so they had an ultimate reason for that. It wasn’t really to help us out. It was because they wanted to keep the chips going because they were… The orders had increased, and they were selling like crazy. In fact, I think one of their quarters were over a billion dollars over expectation.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Wow.

Yeah. They did at one time, they did say they were going to give us some hazard pay, and it was supposed to be $20 a day, up to $100 a week, so even if you worked five or six days that didn’t matter, but up to $100 a week. They only did it for a few weeks, and then they stopped, it, and I don’t know… I joked with people, I said, I think they were afraid we were going to get used to the pay raise, because that was what a pay raise would’ve felt like. Yeah. They took it away and they said, nope, you guys don’t need it. So, we’re like, okay.

So, we continued to work. People did get COVID, and then they would to do contacts, try to get ahold of people, but it was kind of hard to do. I mean, they were trying to do contacts. I guess it was who were we around, or look on videos to see who you were talking to, and they’d miss people, though, because we had two guys, best friends, hung out in the break room together all the time. Well, one got send home, and left the other guy working there. Someone [inaudible], how can you not send his buddy home? They said, well, we didn’t see him on a video talking. I said, they talk in the break room all the time. So, they went and sent him home, and then he did, he got COVID too.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Wow.

Cheri Renfro:     Then in the first part, though, I got sick, and I thought it was COVID, but at that time testing was so limited, you had to have at least three symptoms before they would test you, and I didn’t make three. I did get sick. They did diagnose it’s pneumonia, and I was off for several weeks. Then I was able to go back. So, I’m thinking I probably had it, and I did not, I guess. Here right before the end of COVID, I did actually get COVID, I guess, and I was able to get tested, and that one said that I was positive.

So, unless you can get it more than once… I did spend some time off, and my husband also got sick, my daughter and my son, and we were just all… It’s scary because you don’t know. For some people, it’s a death sentence, and for some people it’s just a cold, or they may not even have any symptoms, and you just don’t know which person you’re going to be, or your spouse, or your children. There’s asthma in my family, in my daughter and my husband, so for me, I was terrified, but –

Maximillian Alvarez:    I can only imagine just the terror of that.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah. Like you said, it’s not just the physical part. It’s just that constant psychological torture of wondering and worrying about the other people in your house.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah. If I’m going to get, are they going to get it? Am I going to kill them because I had it? Yeah, and then we made it through, and I thank God we did. But I’ll tell you what, them orders came in harder and faster the second year. As we come off COVID, I think people were celebrating. They don’t really tell us how many people we’re short, but I know our second shift warehouser drivers, I know it’s like a handful, so they’re forcing over first shift to cover and third [inaudible], and they just did this for months. These guys are just getting worn out. In my department, I am fortunate that there’s… They don’t run on Saturday because the orders are too little, so they just dump into Sunday’s. So, most of the time we get one day off, except for during push weeks. We may work seven days through, but even that’s hard. I mean, doing six days of 12s, that wears me out, and trying to catch up on your housework, your chores, I can’t –

Maximillian Alvarez:     I mean, you’re pulling six 12s. You’ve got barely any energy to do anything.

Cheri Renfro:     No, you don’t. One day off is hard. You know you’ve got things you’re supposed to be doing, but it’s hard because you just want to relax. You just want to take a breath, just breathe.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah. I mean, this is like the… One of, I guess, the terrifying things about this, or maddening things about this, is how much you’re hearing this kind of thing from workplaces around the country. I know for this show we were talking to folks involved in the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, but we’ve talked to Amazon folks around the country. It sounds super similar to what you’re describing. I mean, these kinds of, whatever they call them, mega-cycle shifts or suicide shifts, it’s just pushing people to the brink, to the point where people really have nothing left but to just get up, go to work, come home. You’re so bone-weary exhausted that all you have energy for is to just lay in bed until it’s time to go back.

Cheri Renfro:      Yeah. Yeah. That describes it very well. At least we’re getting paid… When [inaudible] we are getting paid the overtime rate, but they just want time off, and we do get breaks, probably like Amazon, so thank God. I mean, I remember, I think after the union, because we would be really… It’d be worse. It’d be so much worse. I remember going through orientation there at Frito-Lay, and they said, we can only force you guys 12 hours a day. I said, only? So, you would do more if you could? You know?

Maximillian Alvarez:     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cheri Renfro:       We also went through break room, which they said, this is our visitation room where your family can come and see you. You can have your kids and your wife or whatever, or spouse, they can come down and see you here. I’m thinking, visitation room? That sounds like prison. Because why would your family have to come to your work to see you? But they were proud. They were proud that they got this big old break room for people to come see you, for your family and your kids to come visit you.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Man, that hit me like a hammer to the chest when you made that comparison.

Cheri Renfro:      Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:     You’re right, because it’s just like, yeah, that’s the one time… I mean, it’s like you may be in a situation where you’re off to work when kids are asleep, you come back when kids are already in bed. It’s like the one time you see it, and it feels like the visitation at a prison. My God.

Cheri Renfro:        Yeah. Yeah, because there’s even… I know we have push weeks during holidays, but summer’s pretty busy too. I mean, that’s some of our busier time. Just the dead of winter around February is the only time we’re really slow. Yeah. Summer, we really crank out the chips too. So, I imagine when kids were off for summer and out of school, and mom or dad are working 7:00 to 7:00, 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, they want to go see their parent. So, they would come down during their break, and I’ve seen kids come in there. I mean, their spouses bring their kids down there so they can go have lunch with mom and dad. That bothers me.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. I mean, it’s just not right. I mean, there’s more to life than that. Right?

Cheri Renfro:         Right.

Maximillian Alvarez:     There’s more to life than just… That’s the thing. You said they talk… Yeah, sure, the overtime’s great. You deserve that. You should get that. But it’s kind of like, it’s deeper than that. It’s the feeling that they are entitled to all of your time, not you.

Cheri Renfro:        Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Right?

Cheri Renfro:     Correct. Correct. Correct.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I mean, because you miss birthdays. You can’t see family if someone gets sick. You’re like, well, I can’t go. I got to work. I mean, there’s just so much of what it means to be alive that you miss out on because of that.

Cheri Renfro:       Yep. Yeah. Historically, I’m always forced on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day 12 hours. So, when I get off work, I always try to run up there to see my mom and dad and spend a couple hours with them, but it’s late by the time I get home and try to get to bed in time for the next day. It’s very difficult. And then umpteen 4th of Julys. That’s another holiday. My mom and dad are 81, and I know their time is going to be short left, and I want to be there. I want to be there for the dinners and laugh with my brothers and our family, the kids. Let’s get together. My mom and dad love for us to all be under one roof. They want to see all of us kids together, and we laugh and play cards, and I cannot count how many times I’ve had to call my mom and dad, and they know. So, you got forced? You got to work? I say, yeah. And they say, we understand. It’s okay. But I know it hurts them.

It’s time I can’t get back. Those are moments you lose forever, and one of these days I’m not going to have a chance to get that moment back in the future. All our time is limited, and that part bothers me a lot. I’ve started to really hate Frito-Lay because they’re taking away my time, and they don’t even try to make things better. That part I don’t get. I don’t get why… If we had 350 people stay and we get more people just to stay there, we’re not having a labor shortage, then [inaudible] that forced overtime. We may start to get some holidays off, because there’s normally people who volunteer, and the ones that are getting forced, we have an option because now you got lots more people working there, and guess what? Some of them want to volunteer for a holiday, and then the ones that don’t want to be there can go spend time with family.

They don’t see it that way. So, I guess they’re not worried about 350 people walking in and out their door. They’re not worried about whether you’re getting forced the weekend. Our resources, our bosses, supervisors, they get to go home. They get to spend their holidays with their family. They get to spend their weekends with their family. They don’t get it, and I think they should… If we’re there, I think they should be there, and I think then they’d probably really make sure to get more people hired.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah.

Cheri Renfro:    Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:  It’s like, spend a day doing what we’re doing, and you’ll be on a hiring spree. And even beyond that, like you said, it’s like… I guess that’s a really important point that I guess I just don’t want to be lost for listeners, is… You made this point before. It’s like, it’s not just that they need to go find workers. They found them. They’re just not doing enough to retain people, to not run them into the ground and send them running for the hills.

Then I guess this really leads us into the strike, because as I understand it, especially after COVID, like you said, with all that turnover, the people who are left and who are trying to fill orders that have increased. Instead of not only hiring more people and doing what you can to retain those people so you can spread those shifts out equitably, you have more orders for fewer people, and their way of patching that up is to just basically force everyone to do a buttload of overtime, to the point that that’s literally all you’re doing besides sleeping. Am I exaggerating too much? Because that’s kind of what it looks like from this side.

Cheri Renfro:     That’s exactly the way it is. That’s exactly the way it is. So, they started doing hiring bonuses. They said, okay, we’ll do hiring bonuses, so they did, and the people make maybe $500 or a couple thousand, depending on what job you apply for, for people coming in. And we’re still not getting people in, and we’re sitting here, we’ve worked through COVID, through the cold, worked through everything, and then we’re like, well, what about us? I mean, we’re losing people here too. Even some long-term people are getting tired and leaving, getting jobs somewhere else. Why aren’t you trying to keep them?

I don’t get it. I don’t get, why would you not want to get the workforce you already have there, they’re already trained, they’re already willing to put up with this overtime to an extent, and you’re not doing more to keep them, retain them? Yeah. I mean, not all the people that we’ve lost are all new people, and there’s been some senior people that have decided they’re tired of it, this is it, had enough. So, they leave, and then we have another open spot, another open spot, and then guess what? Now we have to fill those open spots with more overtime. It’s a vicious cycle.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Man. Yeah. I mean, vicious is really the word, and I guess… So, again, with all of this going on and with the strike going on, I don’t want to keep you too long, and I wanted to talk about what this has looked like from the strike side of things. So, I guess, could you talk a little bit about that? I mean, it sounds like, given everything that you’ve described, I’m amazed you all didn’t go on strike sooner, but I know it’s not as easy as just flipping a switch. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into a strike, and there’s a lot of factors playing in there. But I guess, could you tell us a little bit about how this all led to y’all going on strike, and if we could talk a little bit about what it’s looked like since you hit the picket line?

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah. So, like I said, for the last 10 years we have gotten minuscule raises, and that gets people upset. And I think you probably always have a few hundred that are ready to strike, but then you always got a few, maybe 100 or so, that are scared to strike. They keep thinking like I did, maybe the next contract will be better. Maybe the next contract, they’ll finally give a raise. And the next contract comes around, and no raise, and [inaudible] scared. They’ve never been on strike. They’re scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen, how are they going to provide for family, because it is a big leap of faith. I mean, you don’t know how you’re going to handle the insurance. But I got to the point where [inaudible] okay. Well, this is it. Something’s got to give, and it’s not going to be us this time.

I think people finally were getting hit which so much overtime, and it’s just lots of areas. Having the little slap in the face, minuscule raises again, especially after COVID, it is a slap in your employees’ face. It’s like, we don’t care. You’re not that important. I think people, that just lit the fire. Then to have the company come back and do dirty, because we were ready to do the strike vote, and they let us do… They said, okay, we’ll put sheets up. You can sign it, and people can take off work to go down and vote. So, people were signing for the sheet. Well, I guess they realized there was a lot of signatures on that sheet. So last minute, they come around, took the sheets down, and put up a note that said, sorry there was confusion. You’re not allowed off to go vote.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cheri Renfro:      So, it was like, okay. And I think that got people so fired up, so they even took points off work to just go down and vote because they were so angry that the company did that at the last second. Yeah. Due to miscommunication… They had them up for almost a week. I don’t see what the miscommunication was. It basically was they just didn’t want us to go down and do the strike vote. And it did pass overwhelmingly, and then they started doing the threats, posting the letters, your insurance is going to be cut off the day you start your strike, telling us the last strike they had lasted eight weeks. Well, that was back in the ’80s in some other state. In fact, it was just a warehouse. It wasn’t even a manufacturing plant.

But all those little half truths are just thrown out there, and you’re going to lose your seniority if you go on strike. They had a list of things. They were posting it everywhere. So, I think some people were getting scared, but I think for the majority, we were still angry enough and tired of all the overtime [inaudible], so they walked out. Yeah. I think the first day we were starting to get things together… Like I said, we’ve never been on strike before, so that was quite a learning curve, knowing where the easements are around the property, trying to find a place to make a central location, trying to make sure people have food, water, tents, make signs and get set up so we do get some pay from the union.

So, it’s been [inaudible]. We’ll say the spirit’s been good. I think people are so glad to be standing up and saying, that’s enough, Frito-Lay. That’s enough. It’s time we’re going to teach you how to treat us. I think that’s important. You have to teach somebody sometimes how to treat you right, and that’s what we’re doing, and I think people are feeling really good on the line. Here’s what really blows me away, is how Topeka has got behind us. They have heard some of the stories of the Frito-Lay plant, read some articles in the paper, and they are blown away too by how Frito-Lay has been treating its employees, and this is a major company.

This is PepsiCo, out of PepsiCo. That’s a big company, and to hear that they treat them just pretty much almost like a sweatshop is, I think, shocking for them. But they’ve been behind us, supporting us, honking, bringing food, water, saying they’re not going to buy the chips, and every little support, every little honk, the cheers, the positive comments we see on Facebook and the media, it’s been positive, and it’s wonderful. It’s a community coming together, and that’s a great thing. Especially after COVID-19 it’s a wonderful thing to see.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I mean, that’s the thing. It makes me think about when they tried to call your bluff and say, oh, yeah. Sure, if you guys want to sign up to go vote to strike, here you go. And then when they started seeing people signing up they were like, oh, shit. No, let’s take that down. In that same way, one of the cards that the bosses always try to play is they try to make you feel alone. They try to make you feel like, hey, outside of these factory doors is a wilderness where the moment you step out, someone’s going to jump in to take your spot. Right?

Cheri Renfro:     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maximillian Alvarez:    If you try to speak up for yourself, you will be crushed under the weight of people’s consumer desires or antiunion sentiments. You don’t want to know how alone you’re going to be if you hit that picket line. And to take that step, it’s such an incredibly brave thing that y’all did, and then to be met with that sort of support, it’s, like you said, not only an amazing thing for y’all, but I think it’s something that all of us need to see after COVID. I mean, we’re not alone. We can support one another and stand up for what’s right, and I think there’s a lot in this world that I am not hopeful about, but that is one thing that makes me feel like there’s still a lot worth fighting for.

Cheri Renfro:    Oh, definitely. Yeah. I mean, we all realized, the ones that’ve come out of COVID-19, we have a life to live. And we want to live it in a good way, and have experiences with our family and have laughs with friends, and enjoy life. So, when they hear about a factory that’s just the opposite, making their employees work these obscene hours, and the way that they treat us within the plant, not respecting our health or safety. And then after going through COVID and have… Wow, this plant’s doing this? Everybody should have a good life to live outside of work, and I think that definitely shocked people, knowing how unfairly they treat [inaudible]. They had a fire, and it raised a lot of smoke, and they continued to have the employees keep working in the smoke.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Wow.

Cheri Renfro:                                          They said, well, the fire’s out. I said, well, there’s a lot of smoke. It’s pretty thick. It was like, it’s just smoke. But to me, it’s like, what are we breathing in? Because I don’t know what all caught fire. Oil, chips, plastics, grease? I don’t know what was all on fire, but, boy, there’s sure a lot of smoke up there. Yeah. They had them continue working in smoke.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Jeez.

Cheri Renfro:                                          It was thick. I can imagine going home and wondering, what did I breathe in? Am I going to be facing cancer in 10 years now because I was breathing that smoke in?

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, it’s like a –

Cheri Renfro:     They block our exits. In my department, I get irritated because we don’t have our walkways marked. They don’t have tape. They don’t have any railings. So, as push week rolls around, we’re taking carts in and off trailers, cardboard product. They just shove it everywhere they can find places for, and blocking my walkway, blocking my exits. I can’t do my job sometimes because there’s so many carts in my way, I can’t even walk down to the areas I need to walk to. And then I go look where I have to go to the door, the exit door, and it’s blocked. It’s like, this is not right. I point out to them, I say, you guys need to open this area up. You need to have walkways, and they shrug… This is what resource does. He shrugged his shoulders, looked at me, and goes, it’s push week.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Jeez.

Cheri Renfro:      He was like, it’ll be gone in a couple weeks. It’s like, it don’t matter. You can have a fire at any time, and you’ve got exits blocked. Really? You ain’t got nothing in front of the door, but you can’t get to the door, and we have little aisles, and he has cardboard and carts sitting at the end of the aisle. How are people going to get out?

Maximillian Alvarez:     I mean, not to minimize this, but it’s almost cartoonishly tone-deaf and disrespectful. Is it going to take someone putting on their gravestone, it was push week, for you to finally realize that that doesn’t justify everything? If there’s a fire, you need to have an exit for it. Yeah.

Cheri Renfro:     I don’t even think that would stop them. I really don’t. I know when we were short on the drivers on second shift especially, and they said, well, we got this outside group called Capstone, and they’re temporary drivers, professional temporary drivers. They’re going to come right in, they’re going to get on the lifts, and it’s going to help relieve some of the overtime. All right. So, I guess they get here, and they aren’t trained on our forklifts at all. In fact, what they are trained on has the opposite steering. So, they spent a couple days with each person training them how to drive a forklift, when normally it takes about two weeks to really get, when you’re training somebody, to make sure that they’re really trained, but they only spend two days. And I think they thought, well, they’re a professional, they already know how to do it, they just need to get to know our lifts.

Well, that’s no excuse because they’re actually going against instinct when they’re driving the lift, because they have to steer the opposite way now, and we had a young lady, I believe she was around 26 years old, from Capstone, was driving a forklift. And she was over-correcting, so the lift started shaking back and forth, and it literally just threw her out and ran over her leg. There’s two little wheels on a forklift, and they do the steering, and there’s a slight gap in between, maybe, I don’t know, three inches, maybe, and her foot went in that gap, up quite a ways, and I guess it just flayed her skin back off of her leg.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Jeez.

Cheri Renfro:      This is a girl that probably only had a couple days training because they didn’t think she needed anything more than that, but since she’s not a Frito-Lay employee, they didn’t report it on our… We have a little sign in our break room whenever somebody has an injury. They didn’t even put it on there because they said, well, she’s not a Frito-Lay employee. Now, OSHA did come out and do the investigation and everything, and I don’t know what they determined, but we’ve had troubles with Capstone because they aren’t trained all the way. They aren’t following the rules of the road. When you pass somebody, you’re supposed to get over to the side like you are going down a road, and these people were going right down the middle. So, everybody else has to jump off to the side to get out of their way.

They’re not honking their horn rounding corners or intersections. They’re passing behind people, and they shouldn’t be passing behind them. They’re raising the lift when they’re putting product away next to a person, and they shouldn’t be. When you do the lift, you need to make sure you clear the area just in case the product ever fell off. These complaints, we’ve been complaining, these guys, they’re not getting it. They’re not following the safety rules we’re supposed to have. And the company thinks, well, these guys are great. They’re relieving overtime. Don’t you like them? It’s like, they’re creating more havoc in the warehouse. So, when that girl hurt herself, we all just shook our head because we’ve all been warning them something’s going to happen. Something’s going to happen.

They guys, they don’t how to drive the lift correctly, and they’re not following the safety rules. Something’s going to happen. So, when she ran over herself, it made you sick to your stomach because you just knew this could’ve been prevented. Frito-Lay should not have brought them in here. Then we had another accident. We had a guy hit a beam, a major structure beam, bent it, damaged the forklift so bad they had to get pry bars and pry out the metal just so they could get the lift to move. There’s numerous hits. They tear up the forklifts. We’ve had so many forklifts in the shop, we ran out of forklifts for people.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Jeez.

Cheri Renfro:    So, they had to order 20 to 30 more from another factory, and then they had another Capstone driver come around his… One of our employees, he was a temp, but he was one of our Frito-Lay employees, he was wrapping the skid up, and the Capstone driver came, and he got too close and really hit him and threw him to the ground. The resources on that shift said, no, no, no, no, no. That was a near miss. So, they went through and reported it as a near miss, and HR didn’t even know about it until three days later. The employees went to HR and said, hey, do you know what happened Friday night when you guys were gone? And told him, and he’s like, no, no one told me about it.

So, he ran and got the guy, and they took him down to the hospital three days after he was hit to get checked out, which he was bruised, sore, but it just baffles me that they wanted to cover this up as a near miss rather than a hit. But I think that’s what they’ve been doing, and to have these Capstone, these aren’t the answer, and these people are from out of town. They’re spending money training them, and they’re not going to stay. I mean, they’re not part of this community. They don’t pay taxes here. They’re not going to be future employees who are going to stick around. So, we get so frustrated, and they’re dangerous. I mean, they’re not trained long enough on the lifts, and the inexperience, it shows.

So, we really want them to just hire off the street. You need to get more people off the street, and we go back again to, why aren’t people wanting to stick around here? Well, you don’t offer enough pay. You’ve got factories around here that now have higher wages than we do. Why would you want to be here? If you can’t compete with local wages, you’re not going to get the employees to come in the door, and we’re always going to be short-staffed. Like I said, the Capstone is not an answer. It’s not even a Band-Aid. It’s a hindrance, and it’s scary. I mean, I used to walk through the warehouse, I had no problem. I always had my vest on so people could see me, but the Capstone people, it was scary walking through there. I tried not to. I would walk clear around the other side of the plant to avoid the warehouse area just so… I didn’t want to get hit.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. Jeez. I can’t blame you.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:     I mean, I know it’s obviously not the same thing, but I guess this also brings us to one of the elephants in the room. I remember reading a little bit this week about some of the things that the company’s doing while you all are on strike, so I know that there are some scabs. They’re trying to make it seem like there are more scabs than there actually are. I guess, could you talk a little bit about how the company’s responded to the strike?

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah. So, we do have some people who are not in the union who probably stayed there, and those are scabs, but the Capstone people, they said they’re going to bring more of them in. They had scheduled, I think, 300 or something they were going to bring in. I mean, they say all kinds of things. Then they said that they were going to get people from other plants to come in. Well, all the plants have been hurting for labor, and so then they also had one that was down in Texas because of the flood, and we were still sending product down to them to help them out. So, I don’t know [inaudible] come from, because if they take people from the other plants, those plants are going to be hurting too. So, they said that… I think they were going to bring supervisors in to help do some of our labor work, which I laugh at that.

I think I would love to see a supervisor come in and do our work in this heat. I would love that, to see the equipment, how the equipment isn’t good, the heat, the sweat, and how hard some of these jobs… The jobs that they always thought was easy, I think it would be great to realize it’s not always so easy. They look easy, but they’re not easy. People make them look easy, but when you go do that job, it’s like you realize it is not an easy job. I don’t think there any easy jobs out there. Yeah, I would love to see resources, which we call resources the supervisors, I’d love to see them work the line. Yeah. They have buses that running out every 15 minutes, and most of them are empty.

I mean, you may see a couple people during shift change, but for the most part, they’re pretty empty. They have them running out to make it look like they’re still working away, like they’re just humming right along. We all know better. I mean, we see the smokestacks out there. There was a week of nothing, nothing coming out of them. This week, they finally got the PC up, but it was up for an hour, down for an hour, up for an hour, down for two hours. So, I could see that they’re really struggling trying to get things running in there, and even if they did have some people, it’s minuscule. There’s no way they can replace all, I don’t know, 500 of us that probably stayed out.

Maximillian Alvarez:     So, they’re basically trying to do the equivalent of… Remember in Home Alone when Macaulay Culkin sets up all the cardboard cutouts of a family and makes it look like there are people inside when there really aren’t? Is that basically what they’re doing?

Cheri Renfro:      That’s exactly what they’re doing, operations like normal. We even had a charter stop by and said, look, I’m supposed to have like 2,900 on my trailer, and they had about 500 or 600 cases on there. So, it’s not even a fraction of what he’s supposed to have, and he’s shipping it. I mean, he’s driving this big trailer and little bitty load on it. So, we know they’re not… They keep having the trailers… In the beginning, we would keep track of the trailers. So, someone got to looking at the numbers, and it’s like, man, that’s the same numbers that have been coming out of here. So, we know it’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors, trying to make things like they don’t miss us and they’re running along just fine, but we all know better. There’s just no way they can replace all of us. For me, I would not want to buy a bag of chips right now. I think I’d be scared to buy a bag of chips while we’re on strike. I would be worried of how it was made. I really would.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. There’s just going to be a bag of twigs with red dust on them or something?

Cheri Renfro:      Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right, because all of our QA people came out. They’re on strike. Well, who’s going to do the quality control? [inaudible] and people in the kitchen, and the cooks, everything. I mean, they’re out, and they know these machines. I mean, every machine has got little quirks, and they know these machines like the back of their hand, and they know how to adjust them, get them running. So, they know anybody that comes in here that’s going to go by the book, it’s not going to work. They’re not going to get the… It’s going to take a long time to learn that machine to know how it’s going to run.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah.

Cheri Renfro:     It’s going to be really interesting to be [inaudible]. I really wish I could be a fly on the wall. I think it would be hilarious.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. I imagine it’s quite the sight in there, and you kind of just said it. It’s like, they spend so long disrespecting their workers and treating you all like you’re expendable, and calling your bluff, assuming that you would never stand up for yourselves. Now the tables have turned and it’s like, all right. If you think we’re that expendable, let’s call your bluff and see how you do. Yeah. I mean, again, we can’t see inside right now, but all signs kind of point to maybe your workers were a little more valuable than you gave them credit for all of this time. What a concept, right?

Cheri Renfro:    Right, what a concept. We can see the grocery stores. I mean, their shelves are getting bare, and some places, chips have been sold out like crazy. So, that just shows that people are choosing not to buy Frito-Lay in support of us. They’re boycotting Frito-Lay chips, and that’s good. I mean, that makes us pretty proud, that the community is very much involved and understands what’s going on, and doing their part to boycott Frito-Lay.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Hell yeah. No. I mean, again, we’ve never met. We’re talking from Baltimore to Topeka, and I’ve been seeing folks all over social media say, do not buy Frito-Lay, or people asking, what are union alternatives that I can buy? Because I love chips too much, but I’m not about to buy Frito-Lay products. And it’s just like we were talking about, coming out of the pandemic, that just feeling of solidarity is really electric, and it really does remind you how much power workers have together, and how much power we all have together when we’re supporting one another. I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not buying shit. As much as I love chips, I’m not buying shit right now, and anyone listening to this, you don’t fucking buy anything – Sorry to swear – Don’t buy anything either.

Cheri Renfro:     Your heart will thank you anyway. Your heart will say, thank you.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah. Maybe it’s for the best. As I said, I spent a lot of the pandemic just double fisting hot Cheetos, so maybe I need to take a break. But I guess in that vein, and by way of rounding out so I can let you go, is along with spreading the word and joining the boycott, I wanted to ask if there were any other things that folks listening to this can do to support you and your coworkers.

Cheri Renfro:     Yeah. I mean, if you want to give a donation, that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. I mean, words of praise goes a long, long way for support, just putting hearts on someone’s comment. That’s wonderful. Standing up for workers that are trying to stand up to make a better life, that’s another thing. There are some people that are like, get to work. You’re being lazy. It’s like, being on strike is not lazy. It’s scary. To have people actually stand up for us that don’t work at Frito-Lay, actually, online, on the media, and they’re actually standing up, they’re like, well, they need to change the working conditions and they’re trying to stand up for themselves, and to have them jump in and actually talk for us and support us, that’s great, and that’s wonderful. Support your unions. We still need unions.

We always will need unions, and we need to support unions everywhere. They help improve the work-life balance, and that’s important. We all need a good work-life balance. If it wasn’t for unions, we wouldn’t have the 40-hour workweek and weekends, and those concepts were unknown before unions came along. So, a lot of that we should appreciate, the holidays we have off, and support each other. We’re all in this together. We’re all in life together, and I think we all want to see each other be happy and live good lives. I mean, that’s being human, and what a wonderful world that we are helping each other out, we are lifting each other up, and that support’s just amazing, and it feels really good. I hope someday I can repay it to the other people maybe going through a strike or struggling with their work-life balance. We all stick together, and we will get through this together. We will improve things for everyone. It can happen.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
Follow: @maximillian_alv