Credit: Melissa Montalvo / Fresno Bee/Fresnoland

What's at stake:

When Hormel Foods acquired Corn Nuts in June 2021, Fresno factory workers say they were forced into a medical plan with higher deductibles, premiums, and employee contributions. Some workers are racking up thousands of dollars worth of out-of-pocket medical expenses, especially workers that are older and need more medical care.

Finding Corn Nuts at your local convenience store might get harder as California Corn Nut factory workers strike.

“No contract, no crunch,” workers from the Corn Nuts plant in south Fresno, represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 85, said on Thursday; the third day of a strike against Hormel Foods, owner of Corn Nuts.

About 20 workers were gathered on Thursday and were greeted with sporadic honks of support from drivers entering and exiting the neighboring Amazon delivery station.

According to a news release, the strike was launched on Tuesday because Hormel unilaterally increased employees’ health care costs without notifying workers of the change after purchasing the company from Kraft Heinz in June 2021.

“We are on strike at Corn Nuts because the company is not bargaining in good faith,” Jerry Gil, financial secretary of BCTGM Local 85, said in a release.

About 40 workers, including the entire production team, are on strike, meaning that the plant will not produce any more product until an agreement is reached, the union said.

Since the strike is only in its first week, consumers are unlikely to notice an impact in the grocery aisle yet, union officials say.

However, that could change depending on the length of the strike since all of the Corn Nut production workers are on strike.

“The benefit of these employees right now is that this is the only facility that makes this product (for the Corn Nuts brand),” Alejandro Ahumada, a representative of Workers and Grain Millers International Union 10401, said Thursday.

“From that conversation I had with some of the production workers, they don’t believe they (the company) has that much stock for certain items,” he said. “So that the public may see the shelves empty out.”

In an email statement to The Bee on Thursday, Hormel Foods officials said they have been in negotiations with BCTGM local No. 85 since acquiring the facility. “We are disappointed that we have not yet reached an agreement, but negotiations will continue, and we are optimistic that we will reach an agreement in the near future.”

The company did not respond to a question about whether inventory would be impacted by the strike.

“No contract no crunch.” Around 20 Corn Nut workers gathered outside of a Fresno production facility as part of a strike on Aug. 18, 2022. They say Corn Nuts owner, Hormel Foods, is not bargaining in good faith. Photo Credit: Melissa Montalvo Fresno Bee/Fresnoland Credit: Melissa Montalvo / Fresno Bee/Fresnoland

Slashed medical benefits during pandemic

Fresno’s Corn Nuts workers are feeling the impact of changed company ownership first-hand, according to John Weidenbach, vice president of BCTGM local 85.

In June 2021, Kraft Heinz sold its nut business to Hormel Foods in a cash transaction worth $3.35 billion, according to Business Wire.

Hormel Foods’ purchase of Corn Nuts, Planters, NUT-rition, Cheez Balls, plus three production facilities is Hormel Foods largest acquisition in the company’s history, according to a company news release.

After that, Hormel “forced” workers into a medical plan with higher deductibles, premiums, and employee contributions, Weidenbach said. As a result, some workers are racking up thousands of dollars worth of out-of-pocket medical expenses, especially workers that are older and need more medical care.

“To do this to them in the middle of a pandemic of all things” has been especially hard on workers, who earn an estimated $40,000- $50,000 per year plus benefits, Weidenbach said, adding that the earnings are comparable to similar positions in the Central Valley.

Typically, the union has language in the contract to ensure the bargaining contract stays in place even during a change of ownership, Ahumada told The Bee. “Unfortunately, with this contract, the language was never put in place.”

“When they first made this purchase, they were making profits and that’s why they decided to purchase this facility,” said Ahumada. “And now they’re just trying to collect their investments faster by taking it from the membership and their employees.”

But the company spokesperson said they’re “working closely with union representatives on a new collective bargaining agreement that is consistent with our total rewards program, which includes competitive wages and benefits.”

Union officials said they’re prepared to support their members in the strike until a just contract agreement is reached.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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