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

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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