Surprise Strike Against Owners of Wonder Bread, Twinkies

Bruce Vail

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Surprise strikes flared at some 25 Hostess Brands bakeries across the country this weekend, as the production workers union reached a breaking point over demands that it accept draconian wage and benefit cuts.

The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Internationial Union (BCTGM) began the unannounced strikes on Friday at four Hostess plants, and the actions quickly spread to other cities. As of today, about 25 Hostess facilities have been closed by the strike, BCTGM President Frank Hurt tells Working In These Times.

Hostess spokesperson Lance Ignon confirmed that at least ten plants were closed, but claimed operations were continuing at a number of other sites despite picket lines by striking BTCGM members. Local press reports indicated that strikes had closed some of the company’s largest bakeries, in Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Fla. and other cities.

BCTGM members have been forced to strike, Hurt indicated, by Hostess’ relentless campaign to eliminate jobs, cut wages. slash benefits and do away with pensions. After months of demands that the union agree to the concessions, Hostess had recently begun piecemeal implementation of the cuts, he said, and the company’s steadfast refusal to negotiate made the strike unavoidable.

It’s a tragic situation. The owners of this company are just determined to suck everything they can out of it. It’s just more than our people can bear,” Hurt said.

The union estimates that the contract cuts amount to 27 to 32 percent overall, with an immediate 8 percent wage reduction. Pensions would be largely eliminated, and the company will not commit to repaying millions of dollars already owed to union pension funds, BCTGM said.

Hostess spokesperson Ignon urged union members to continue working but acknowledged that the company had no intention of resuming negotiations or rescinding any of the cuts.

The cuts are hard to take, we know that. But a prolonged strike means that our lenders will cancel their funding and the company will be liquidated,” he said.

BCTGM picket lines are being honored by most other unions that have members employed with Hostess, he said. There have been scattered reports of Teamsters truck drivers crossing picket lines, but these have had almost no effect on overall progress of the strike, according to the BCTGM leader. Earlier this year, the Teamsters signed a contract with Hostess similar to the one that prompted BCTGM to strike.

Hostess estimates it employs about 18,500 workers nationwide. The largest union at the company is the Teamsters, with about 7,500 members, followed by BCTGM, with about 5,000 members. Members of smaller unions and a non-union contingent make up the reminder.

Since entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings early this year, Hostess has emphasized that labor concessions were essential to any corporate reorganization of the company. It obtained court approval to impose new contracts on most union members and reached an agreement on sweeping concessions with the Teamsters in October.

BCTGM, however, turned down a similar concessions agreement in a rank-and-file vote, Hurt says. Union members are convinced that the company has no intention of using Chapter 11 to reorganize and repair the company, but rather are intent on breaking the unions and selling off the company, he says.

They are vulture capitalists….They have not invested in any new equipment or new trucks. They have not brought in new managers who know how a bakery works. …They just sucking money out until the day they can flip the company to a new owner,” Hurt charges.

Labor relations between the union and the company are badly broken and there is no immediate sign that there is a basis for settling the strike, the BCTGM leader concedes. No attempt has been made by Hostess executives to negotiate an end to the strike, he says. Neither is the union willing to return to the table unless the company is willing to withdraw the current concessions package.

Hostess’ Ignon warned that a prolonged strike could mean the liquidation of the company. In that case, all BCTGM members would lose their jobs permanently, he said, as would thousands of other Hostess employees.

Detailed information on the progress of the strike is available at the BTCGM site.

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Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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