Since Nov. 3, workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) Local 37 have been on strike against Rich Products at the Jon Donaire Desserts plant in Santa Fe Springs, California. Working in perpetually cold and wet conditions, these workers make ice cream cakes for household-name stores like Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Walmart, Costco, Ralph’s, Vons, Smart & Final, and Safeway.
As Cristina Lujan, a worker at the Santa Fe Springs plant and BCTGM Local 37 member, recently told Forbes: “We are on strike because we’re fighting for higher wages, affordable health care and to be treated with respect and dignity.” In this interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Lujan about the current state of the strike and what brought workers to the picket line in the first place.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News. And it’s so great to have y’all with us. Since Nov. 3 of 2021, workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union, or the BCTGM, local 37 have been on strike against Rich Products at the Jon Donaire desserts plant in Santa Fe Springs in California. These workers make ice cream cakes for household name companies like Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Walmart, Costco, Ralphs, Vons, Smart & Final, and Safeway.
As Cristina Lujan, a worker at the facility and BCTGM local 37 member, recently told Forbes, “We are on strike because we’re fighting for higher wages, affordable healthcare, and to be treated with respect and dignity.” So while wage increases have been at the center of contract talks between workers and Rich Products, wages are by no means the only issue here. As Michael Hiltzik writes for the LA Times, “The workers, mostly Latinas, received ‘hero pay,’ a roughly $2 an hour 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 childcare.”
In a statement to the press, Rich Products states “Rich’s associates, many of whom are multi-generational and average 10 years of tenure at the plant, currently have a platinum healthcare plan of which the company pays 90% of the premium with no deductible. Up to 38 days of annual paid time off and a company paid pension plan. The company recently presented its last and final contract offer that would’ve retained all that and also included wage increases for each of the three years of the next contract to ensure wages continued to be at or above market for similar roles in Los Angeles County.” To talk about this important labor struggle I’m honored to be joined by Cristina Lujan herself. Cristina, thank you so much for joining me today.
Cristina Lujan: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well again, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Obviously you’ve got a lot going on right now having been on strike since early November. And we are all in the midst of a disastrous COVID-19 wave right now. So I really do appreciate you taking the time to sit down and talk with us so that we can make sure that Real News viewers know about this important labor struggle, why you all are out on strike, and what they can do to show solidarity.
So, we mentioned the statement to the press from Rich Products. They’ve said their piece in the mainstream press. And we really wanted to make sure that Real News viewers got your perspective from the shop floor so that we could know more about the kind of work that you do, the conditions that you and your coworkers work under, what brought you to the picket line in the first place, and how things have been going since then. So I was wondering if we could actually, maybe start a little bit before the strike, and if you could tell listeners a bit about this plant in particular and the kind of work that you all do and the kinds of working conditions that you have there.
Cristina Lujan: Yes. We make ice cream cakes at Jon Donaire. I personally work on the line that’s called the unifiller line, which is the line where the cakes are being decorated, the ice cream cakes are being decorated. When we decided to leave we were already doing 13 cakes per minute, which is, I can explain to you a little bit how the beginning of the line starts. The first person on the line, she or he is receiving the cake and she has to have a spatula in one hand. She has a bucket of corn syrup on the side of her with cardboards that are shaped in quarter sheets because the cakes are majority quarter sheets. The slug, that’s what the cake is called, is coming down the conveyor.
Before it gets to you, you’re putting the spatula into the corn syrup. You get your cardboard, you spread it, you put it down and then you receive your cake and you center it on the cardboard. And you’re doing that 13 times in one minute. That’s basically the beginning of the line and that’s what we’re doing. And everybody else that follows the one that’s combing, she’s doing that same movement 13 times in a minute. The one that’s putting sprinkles on it, she’s putting sprinkles on 13 cakes per minute. And that’s basically that in my line. In the ice cream line where they’re making them, it’s a bit faster because it’s less stuff that they do there, but they’re probably ranging from 32 to 38 cakes per minute there.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. So regardless, there are a lot of cakes moving in front of you every single minute.
Cristina Lujan: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I mean, this is important because as consumers, we’ve probably all enjoyed the products that you all make day in and day out. I grew up in Southern California. I used to go to Baskin-Robbins and Vons and Ralphs all the time. So I know I’ve had cakes that you all have made. And since these are ice cream cakes, I think one thing that folks probably don’t think about is you got to kind of control for the temperatures in the plant as well. So are you all working in cold conditions?
Cristina Lujan: Yes. We work in cold conditions, wet conditions, because we don’t only do one style or one flavor of cake. So every changeover is a wash down, a complete wash down of conveyors and stuff. So it’s mostly always wet. So it’s wet. It’s cold. Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: And just speaking as someone on the line, what sort of toll does that take on your body? I mean, I imagine you’re standing for a long time. It’s cold. I guess just for people who are watching and listening, what does working in this specialized type of facility mean for you as flesh and blood working people?
Cristina Lujan: Many of us have carpal tunnel, shoulder injuries, back injuries. You can imagine you’re on your feet for eight hours, minimum eight hours sometimes even more. And yeah, we’re pretty much all banged up, hurt.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I mean, I can’t imagine that it got a whole lot better during COVID-19. Could you tell us a little bit about, by way of getting us to the strike, what working at this plant during the COVID-19 pandemic has been like?
Cristina Lujan: Yeah, we never stopped working during the pandemic. The most, I think, was two weeks we were off. It was very stressful. Lots of fear. The company wasn’t very good at letting us know who was being sick or who was being tested positive. We would more assume, you would, okay, she’s been gone for so long. Oh, she probably got it. Or, was I around her? Wasn’t I around her? And things like that. And we’ve been working through the whole pandemic. Like I tell you, we only stopped for two weeks. And like you mentioned earlier we only got paid hero pay for six weeks out of the whole pandemic. And for me personally it was very stressful and full of fear because at the beginning of COVID my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. So she started her surgeries, her treatments, and I had to be at work and I was one of her caregivers. So imagine the fear of bringing this to her, but I had to take care of her. I mean, she didn’t have anybody else. So it was very stressful for me.
Maximillian Alvarez: My God, I can only imagine that is. Because you don’t get a reprieve. Every single day you’re worried about getting infected, bringing it to your mother. And I can’t let this point pass because it’s something we’ve seen in so many other workplaces throughout this pandemic, this “hero pay” scam. We’ve talked about it on The Real News many times before, but for anyone watching and viewing, there’s a very special reason why companies like Rich, companies like Amazon, and myriad others called it hero pay and not hazard pay. Because when you call it hero pay then it feels like you as the company are rewarding workers out of the kindness of your own heart. Whereas if you call it hazard pay you’re admitting that workers are working under hazardous conditions. And they call you heroes for a few weeks then it’s, get back to work, we’re taking that money away.
Cristina Lujan: [crosstalk] Cover up everything else and then them bam, it’s gone. You’re only worth it for six weeks and then that’s it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. Yes. Yeah. As long as we can get the publicity out of it by saying that we value our workers and then when people move on we take it away. So speaking about that, since obviously wages are a really crucial part of what led to this strike, could you talk us through the process of getting to the picket line? Because obviously going on strike is never a decision that workers take lightly. And it’s a big, important, and often stressful decision. Could you talk us through what led you all to the point where it felt like striking was what needed to happen over there?
Cristina Lujan: Well, as far as wages, they offered us a $0.50 raise which is ridiculous because everything’s going up in prices, gasoline, meat, produce, everything is going sky high. And then they were going to give us a $0.50 cent raise per year, because our contract is for three years. And they were going to hire… We pay out of pocket for our insurance, which leaves us with no profit at all. It’s like, they’re giving you a raise is going to go directly into your healthcare, if you have enough. So [inaudible] we said like, yeah, there’s no profit for us here. We need to fight.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well and I mean, I guess this may be an obvious point but for folks who are watching this or listening to this who don’t live in California, $17 an hour may sound like a good amount but in Southern California that doesn’t go very far. Right. I mean, it’s a very, very expensive place to live. And could we also talk about the ways that you and your coworkers have to live your lives around being paid a subpar wage? How do you, again, for folks who are watching and listening, if you’re living in a very expensive place and the company’s saying, oh, we pay competitive rates, could you tell folks a bit about how, in your own budget, those wages are not as sufficient as Rich is claiming they are.
Cristina Lujan: Yeah. Well as we just said, in California everything’s expensive, gas is like at $5 a gallon now. We’re just like on a paycheck to paycheck system. You don’t have money to save. You don’t have money for extra things. You’re mainly just living, paying your bills, getting food on your table and having shelter for your kids and your family. And it’s expensive. I have three children. They want to be in sports. That all costs money. You got to dress them, events for school. My son’s a senior this year and, boy, is it expensive. He has a prom coming. He has his senior portraits, all that kind of stuff is extra stuff that you got to like, try to make ends meet.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And, I mean, like and these are the costs of being a person. Being a human being with children, going to school. You’re not buying yachts, right, you’re not living like this lavish –
Cristina Lujan: Yeah. I’m not asking for money to go on a yacht or go on exotic trips. It’s just to live comfortably, to live without that worry of, is this check going to be enough to cover what’s necessary?
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I think like this is, again, something we’ve been hearing from so many other worker struggles that have happened over the past year from folks who, like yourselves, are working a lot of forced overtime, to folks who are trying to meet all the record demand for these types of consumer products. There are striking workers at Kellogg’s, striking workers at John Deere, and so on and so forth.
But I think that what it really comes down to, what we’re hearing from so many folks, is that if you as an employer don’t see me as a whole human being with a body that breaks down, with a family that has needs that I’m trying to provide for, if you only see me as this human shaped cardboard cutout who comes to work for eight, 10 hours a day and then disappears off the face of the planet, you’re not respecting people in the way that you need to respect them. And I know that this is something that has come up a lot from workers there who’ve been on strike since November, is that fundamental question of respect. Could you tell us a little bit about what that respect means for you all and how you’re not getting it from this company?
Cristina Lujan: Yeah. I don’t think I mentioned it, but I’ve been working at this company for 19 years now. I’ve given this company more than half of my life. And every expectation that they’ve given us, we’ve met it year after year, as far as production, as far as everything. And they don’t think we’re worth that $1 because that’s what we’re asking for, a $1. raise. It just makes us very sad that they don’t appreciate us. Like you say, they think we’re just made out of cardboard or something. Mr. Rich says that they’re the most competitive wages or whatever, something like that. But I say, if you can, why can’t you give us a little bit more? Which is, I’m sure that you can because you’re worth $7.5 billion. Why not appreciate all these human beings that have given… Some of the workers have been there for 30, 35 years, minimum 19 years. We’ve given our whole life to this company and we’ve met every goal that you put, every expectation, every [inaudible], and you don’t think that we deserve this raise and what we’re asking for?
Maximillian Alvarez: I always roll my eyes at companies who say this with a straight face, because context really matters here. I mentioned Amazon, for example. So this time last year at The Real News we were reporting on the union drive in Bessemer, Alabama, at the Amazon fulfillment center there. And Amazon was constantly saying, oh, we pay some of the highest wages in the area. And if you look at the details, you’re like, well, first of all, in Bessemer, Bessemer has twice the national poverty rate. So there aren’t a lot of good paying jobs anywhere. So that doesn’t mean that your wages are good, it just means they’re slightly higher than all the other crappy jobs around them.
But what they were also leaving out is that in the greater Birmingham area, unionized warehouses like Amazon were actually paying $2 more than what Amazon was paying. So it’s kind of this way that they only show you one side of what they’re talking about. So Rich Products can say like, oh, we pay competitive wages with similar work in the area. But if folks doing similar work in the area are all struggling to get by, that’s not saying much. That’s just saying that no one’s getting paid what they deserve.
Cristina Lujan: Yeah. And he says, also he says that he hasn’t had any of his company strike in over 70 something years. There’s a company in Tennessee where the cost of living is way less than California. They’re getting paid – Which, they do a similar work that we do – They’re getting paid $6 more than we are per hour. So of course, why would they go on strike? But that’s why we’re on strike, because you’re paying other people more when we’re doing the similar type of work and living in an area where the cost of living is very expensive.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man, that is mind blowing. And again, I know how my much you have going on and I don’t want to take liberties with your time, but by way of maybe rounding us out I wanted to ask if you could tell viewers and listeners a bit about what it’s been like to be on strike since early November, where things are at right now, and what folks in the area and around the country and around the world can do to show solidarity with you and your coworkers.
Cristina Lujan: Well, it’s been hard. It’s hard. It’s not a party. It’s hard work. We’re out there 24/7, every day, through Christmas, through rain. Our rainy season started and it started pretty strong here. And we’ve been out there every single day. We’re trying to keep strong. I mean, we’ve had a lot of help from the community, from other local unions also. They’ve been helping us a lot. They’ve been bringing food baskets to us, gift cards. They just have been there giving us, we can do it, and just keep fighting, and they haven’t left us alone.
But it’s hard. It’s a struggle. I mean, we’re living on a $185 paycheck, our strike benefits. And we have to make ends meet, but we think it’s worth it. We think it’s worth fighting for what we want. Mainly we need this type of media, we need to get it out. We want to show the greed of this company that we feel it’s not, they’re not giving us what we want, not because they can’t, but because they just decided not to give it to us. And just mainly that, just to get it out in the public and so we can hopefully get a better contract.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Cristina Lujan, a worker at the Rich Products Jon Donaire Desserts plant in Santa Fe Springs in California and member of BCTGM local 37, who’s been on strike with her coworkers since Nov. 3. Cristina, thank you so much for joining us here at The Real News.
Cristina Lujan: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important conversations and coverage just like this. Thank you so much for watching.