Q&A with Kyle Kordsmeier 

Organizing Director of the Workers Interfaith Network

Last month, 226 workers at Kellogg's were "locked out" after negotiations with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers' International Union fell through. Those workers remain locked out as of press time.

At issue is a disagreement between the union, which has claimed that Kellogg's has failed to protect employees' wages and benefits and plans to pay future hires less than above-market wages, and Kellogg's, which wants to bring in temporary workers.

Organizers at the Workers Interfaith Network have been fighting for workers' rights in Memphis since 2002, and their latest campaign is bringing to light the issue faced by workers locked out of the Memphis Kellogg's plant. The group held a candlelight vigil outside the Kellogg's plant near Airways last week.

Memphis Flyer: Why are workers' rights so important?

Kyle Kordsmeier: Workers' rights gave us the weekend, the eight-hour workday, and, ultimately, it's our livelihood. When people work and they're not paid, they can't go on living the best part of their life, which is at home. They have to worry about bills. They have to worry about making ends meet. Workers' rights and workers' justice are more important now than ever. We've only got two investigators for all of West Tennessee — so one for every 180,000 workplaces.

Is the situation at Kellogg's a reflection of the labor market in Memphis now?

It's experiencing resurgence now because of companies like Kellogg's who are trying to bring poverty/minimum-wage jobs to Memphis after employing people at a high level for so many years. Now they're saying they're going to join the race to the bottom and try to make us pick up the tab by paying workers so little, they have to get on government assistance. I think we're seeing a resurgence of people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

What are the biggest issues in the Kellogg's campaign?

The workers have a contract that said that they would allow 30 percent of the workforce to be temporary or part-time and not receive benefits. However, the company wants to make all of these plants 100 percent temporary workers or poverty-wage workers. That's just something the union is not going to negotiate. Kellogg's locked them out, and they're trying to replace them with poverty workers.

How did the candlelight vigil go?

It started off with 300 people. It kept getting bigger up to about 450. It was a rejuvenating experience because no one in Memphis expected that many people to come out and support the workers.

Kellogg's is trying to put these people on the street. They're a company that made $14.2 billion last year. They have the audacity to ask us for a tax break and pick up the tab for their poverty-wage jobs that they're trying to replace these workers with.

What kind of Memphis do you see when you work with Workers Interfaith Network?

I see a community that's dedicated to standing up against injustice. I think we've always been a point of leverage in the state for labor rights and workers' rights. To see the state government take us on and make laws just for our city, it's very telling that they are in the hands of corporations. We have to stand up on the grassroots level. We have to seek justice in our individual workplaces.

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