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Tennessee workers deserve better from NYC corporation


Across our country, workers are demanding changes following years of pandemic uncertainty and unprecedented cost of living increases. According to the Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker, labor stoppages have steadily risen in the past few years. 

Many employers are responding by delivering higher pay, more favorable health-care benefits and safer working conditions for their employees. But this has not been the case everywhere. In Shelby County, Tennessee, one of our major employers has not kept up with the trend, and now more than 200 of my constituents and their families are suffering the consequences.

They work for International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), a billion-dollar corporation headquartered in New York City. Last June, employees at IFF’s Memphis plant began striking after more than a year of working under an expired contract. This plant employs skilled workers who help to process a soy protein commonly used in a wide range of everyday products from medicines to baby formula to pet food.

The company has since settled other labor disputes across the nation. However, unlike their peers in Oklahoma and Illinois, Memphis workers are still waiting for a fair and acceptable contract nearly a year into their work stoppage.

Memphis is a city with a long history of poverty, but it’s also a community of nearly one million residents who stand united for the dignity of their neighbors. It has a vibrant history of successful labor movements, such as the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike that drew Martin Luther King Jr. to the city.

At the core of this current labor dispute is a call for respect. According to union representatives, IFF, which reported $11.5 billion in net sales in 2023, is trying to eliminate paid breaks and require employees to work more hours a day to earn overtime. After a global health crisis that exposed the cracks in our health-care system, IFF workers are also demanding protections to maintain their current health insurance benefits.

It’s disheartening to see these workers’ dedication met with resistance from management, as I have witnessed firsthand. On Oct. 18, supporters from labor unions and other advocacy groups gathered for a rally in New York City in front of IFF Headquarters and, on the same day, I stood with workers on the picket line here in Memphis. I have continued to reach across the table, but negotiations have seen little movement, and often feel like hitting a brick wall.

In January, I wrote a letter to IFF’s CEO at the time, Frank Clyburn — Erik Fyrwald joined IFF as CEO in February 2024. In his response, he encouraged me to contact the IFF’s director of government affairs, but my request for a meeting with her was swiftly denied.

IFF management must come to the table and present workers with a contract that reflects a fair approach to their demands. Their proposed changes to break times, overtime pay and benefits are more than numbers on a ledger — they directly impact the livelihoods of hardworking individuals and their families. It's time for management to show a firm commitment to resolving this dispute, sharing in the spirit of the times, and honoring their employees' contributions. I believe a fair resolution can be reached, but the time to act is now.

Lee Harris is the mayor of Shelby County in Tennessee and Hanna McCarthy is outreach and engagement coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Innovation. 

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