Bronx Bakery Closing Imminent, But Union Continues Fighting

Kari Lydersen

BCTGM Local 50 members protest during the Stella D'Oro bakery strike earlier this year, in the Bronx, New York City.
The historic Stella D’Oro bakery in the Bronx may close as early as Oct. 9, putting 130 union members out of a job after their victorious 11-month strike was followed by a battle to keep their factory open.

The Connecticut private equity firm Brynwood Partners bought the bakery from Kraft in 2006 and has been at loggerheads with Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union ever since.

Last year Brynwood tried to force the union to accept pay cuts of up to 25 percent for unskilled” workers, gutted severance and vacation pay, and steeply increased healthcare costs, among other concessions. The workers went on strike in August 2008.

In June, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in the union’s favor, deciding the company bargained in bad faith and ordering workers to be reinstated with back pay.

But just as workers went back to their jobs, they were told that Brynwood was planning to sell the bakery to the North Carolina snack-maker Lance Inc., which plans to close the Bronx factory between Oct. 9 and Oct. 23 and move production to Ohio. (Read more on Alternet by Working In These Times contributor Art Levine here.)

The union is asking city and state officials to prevent the sale, arguing the company refused to consider offers from other buyers who planned to keep the Bronx plant open.

Union local president Joyce Alston sees the sale as retaliation against the union for refusing to accept the concessions, which would have turned the union into just a dues collector,” without any real power, in her words. The union has filed a retaliation charge with the NLRB.

Alston said that over the past year, the union has been contacted by multiple potential buyers who stated their intention to keep the factory open. She provided the company’s contact information, but heard back from would-be buyers that the company ignored their requests for information.

If this was simply about money, why would you not entertain multiple offers, so you could get the best offer you could,” she said. This is not about keeping the company open, this is about control, this is getting back at the union. People have a right to stand up for themselves, here they are being punished for that.”

Supporters and members of the union had previously requested the city use the power of eminent domain to take control of the factory and run it as a worker-owned or publicly-owned operation. Alston said she doesn’t see that as realistic at this point, but said union leaders are looking at all legal options to keep the plant open.

We’re hoping against all odds,” she said.

They are looking into city or state tax breaks the company has received, and arguing that until any tax breaks are reimbursed” to tax payers, the company should not be sold to a buyer who plans to close it down when other buyers who would keep it open are waiting in the wings.

Stella D’Oro was started by an Italian immigrant couple in 1922 and sold to Nabisco in 1992, then to Kraft Foods. Workers have been represented by the BCTWGM union for four decades.

The strike and struggle to prevent the closing have garnered widespread community support. In September, supporters rallied outside Goldman Sachs, using the increasingly common tactic of targeting a major lender or investor, especially when the financial institution is a recipient of taxpayer bailout dollars. Goldman Sachs, which owns a major interest in Lance Inc., received billions in bailout funds.

After Brynwood purchased Stella D’Oro, newly appointed CEO John Dowers said, I am delighted to be entrusted with the task of running the great Stella D’oro Company and look forward to working with our employees, customers and vendors to grow and invigorate the business.”

But Alston said the new management has been strongly anti-union from day one. She said that shortly after buying Stella D’Oro, the company got rid of Teamsters salespeople in favor of non-union independent contractors. Then the battle began with us.”

She said the 2008 concessions request, which the company framed as financially necessary, was not about saving money. It was about breaking the contract down so you can make as much money as possible before you flip it. The company is bashing the union, saying we’re responsible (for the impending closure) for not being willing to make concessions, which is absolutely false.”

Alston said she demanded the company tell workers exactly when the plant will close, so they can better prepare. But she said they would only give a two-week possible closing period in October, which begins Friday. A rally at New York City Hall is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 8, to demand an injunction against the sale. Meanwhile the union is looking for openings at other worksites they represent.

Our job is to continue to do everything we can to stop the sale,” Alston said. And if we can’t, then to do everything we can to set up our members with other jobs.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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