New Aid for Hostess Workers As Bakeries Auction Approaches

Bruce Vail

BCTGM President David Durkee (left) and retired Bakery union leader Joe Thibodeau call on Wall Street to pay its fair share at a 'Tax Wall Street, Not Main Street' rally outside the White House in 2011.The event was sponsored by National Nurses United.

Last week, the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor announced an expand­ed pack­age of ben­e­fits for more than 18,000 work­ers fired from their jobs at Host­ess Brands, the com­pa­ny famous for pro­duc­ing Won­der Bread and Twinkies.

The work­ers — for­mer­ly employed in 864 sep­a­rate Host­ess loca­tions in 48 states — were sum­mar­i­ly fired last Novem­ber when com­pa­ny man­agers closed the com­pa­ny rather than reach an agree­ment with strik­ing mem­bers of the Bak­ery, Con­fec­tionary, Tobac­co Work­ers and Grain Millers Inter­na­tion­al Union (BCT­GM).

Labor Depart­ment spokesper­son Glo­ria Del­la said the fired work­ers are now eli­gi­ble for spe­cial ben­e­fits under the agency’s Trade Adjust­ment Assis­tance pro­gram, which pro­vides extend­ed aid in addi­tion to nor­mal unem­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion. The ben­e­fits include finan­cial help for job search­es, retrain­ing, relo­ca­tion and relat­ed expens­es, she said. No spe­cif­ic cash amount has been set aside for the Host­ess work­ers, accord­ing to Del­la, but the total cost could amount to sev­er­al thou­sand dol­lars for each eli­gi­ble work­er. In all cas­es, dis­placed work­ers should apply for the new ben­e­fits at their state unem­ploy­ment or work­force devel­op­ment offices, she said.

The labor agency was imme­di­ate attacked by the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, a right-wing think tank, for favor­ing strik­ing work­ers over the company’s own­ers. How­ev­er, the new ben­e­fits pro­gram applies equal­ly to BCT­GM mem­bers, to mem­bers of oth­er Host­ess unions that did not go on strike, and to non-union work­ers, includ­ing many managers. 

The announce­ment comes as the sale of the company’s bak­eries and oth­er assets moves for­ward, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that at least some of the plants will be re-opened under new own­er­ship, accord­ing to BCT­GM Pres­i­dent David Dur­kee. The company’s assets have been divid­ed up into sev­er­al large chunks and will be auc­tioned off in sep­a­rate pieces, Dur­kee said. The first such sale is sched­uled to take place on Thursday.

Since the strike and the mass fir­ings late last year, BCT­GM has been eval­u­at­ing — and court­ing — prospec­tive buy­ers of the old bak­eries who might be will­ing to offer new jobs to the fired Host­ess work­ers, Dur­kee told Work­ing In These Times. We don’t have any agree­ments in place [with poten­tial buy­ers], but there are obvi­ous ben­e­fits to a new own­er” in re-hir­ing fired BCT­GM mem­bers in sim­i­lar jobs, he said.

The ini­tial focus in the bak­ing indus­try is on Flow­ers Foods, a Geor­gia-based com­pa­ny with bak­ing oper­a­tions and dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works in the South and Mid-Atlantic regions. Flow­ers is the so-called stalk­ing horse bid­der” that has already offered $360 mil­lion for 20 Host­ess bak­eries. Cur­rent­ly, Flow­ers oper­ates a mix of union and non-union plants, with BCT­GM col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments already in place in sev­er­al cities, Dur­kee said.

There are [legal] restric­tions in place” that have pre­vent­ed direct talks with poten­tial buy­ers lead­ing up to the auc­tion process, he con­tin­ued, but a pro­vi­sion­al sale in the com­ing weeks should allow the union to enter direct talks with Flow­ers and oth­ers. Reach­ing a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment with new own­ers is not going to be an easy thing,” Dur­kee said. But, he added, such con­tracts may pro­vide the best means of get­ting the old Host­ess bak­eries back into oper­a­tion quick­ly. Our peo­ple are skilled,” said Dur­kee. They know the equip­ment and they know how to make a good prod­uct. They weren’t the ones who ran Host­ess into the ground.”

As Dur­kee sees it, the dif­fer­ence between Host­ess and these new own­ers is that Host­ess did not want to be in the busi­ness of bak­ing.” It was always the inten­tion of Host­ess’ hedge-fund own­ers to dis­mem­ber the com­pa­ny, said Dur­kee, and it was impos­si­ble to reach rea­son­able agree­ment with them. We are always will­ing to work with any com­pa­ny that is com­mit­ted to mak­ing a qual­i­ty prod­uct and pro­vid­ing decent mid­dle-class jobs for its work­ers,” he said.

Dur­kee declined to spec­u­late on the like­li­hood that BCT­GM will win back the jobs lost at Host­ess. But he added that he feels an oblig­a­tion to try. Our peo­ple have been through a lot. They were incred­i­bly coura­geous” in vot­ing for the strike against Host­ess, and they showed impres­sive sol­i­dar­i­ty in the face of threats and intim­i­da­tion. I just admire them tremen­dous­ly,” he said. I would do any­thing for them.”

Dur­kee con­clud­ed with a sharp crit­i­cism of the U.S. Bank­rupt­cy Court for the South­ern Dis­trict of New York, which has con­sis­tent­ly sided with Host­ess man­agers against its unions since the com­pa­ny entered bank­rupt­cy pro­ceed­ing ear­ly last year. Dur­kee believes that court has allowed itself to be manip­u­lat­ed by the Host­ess finan­cial man­agers from the start. We’re dis­ap­point­ed by the court,” he said. It doesn’t seem like the work­ing peo­ple got a fair shake in the legal process.”

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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