[by Marty Goodman]
“No contract, no cookies!,” say strikers at the Stella D’oro bakery in the Bronx. This great labor battle has been raging in a working-class neighborhood called Kingsbridge since August. About 135 workers, mostly women immigrants from Latin America and Africa with a mixture of Italians and others, have taken on a union-busting outfit at this once family-run bakery.
During contract negotiations last summer, the new Stella owners, Brynwood Partners, presented their demands on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Wages were to be slashed 25%; health insurance premiums were to be unaffordable; holiday, vacation, and sick pay to be eliminated and extra pay for working Saturdays also gone. Hourly wages were to be cut by $1 each year, from the current $18 an hour down to $13 in five years.
The Stella workers voted unanimously to strike, seeing the union-busting stance of the company for what it was—a declaration of war. “The people understood that we had fought over the years to achieve what we had. It wasn’t fair for them to take everything … it was too much,” said Emele Dorsu, an immigrant from Ghana, who was first hired in 1978.
The Stella D’oro workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50 (BCTGM).
All Stella D’oro goods are now being made by scabs. Cops are guarding the main entrance to the factory, where carloads of strike-breakers come and go. Stella says many are hired as replacement workers.
The scabs receive their share of taunts but strikers are corralled by cops inside a steel pen. Cops even stopped picketers from maintaining a fire during the coldest months and removed chairs from the picket line. It took a fight just to get a few chairs put back. Picketers sometimes call the cops “scabs in blue.”
Shop Steward Mike Filippou, a mechanic with 14 years at Stella, told Socialist Action, “Its’ like we are in a war. We do absolutely nothing to them. They treat us like criminals. The criminals are in there.” Filippou said he had a foot run over by a scab. When he reported it to police, they told him to dial 911.
Brynwood Partners bought the company in 2006 from Kraft Foods, who in turn purchased the company from Nabisco. Nabisco bought the original family business in 1992, founded by Italian immigrants in 1932. The Bronx is the only remaining bakery, but the brand has national distribution.
Brynwood Partners, a private equity company, are slash-and-burn capitalists. Companies like Brynwood drive other companies into the ground, extract maximum profits and sell them off.
Once it took over, Brynwood outsourced its delivery trucks. Brynwood cofounder and senior partner Hendrik Hartong had worked for the union-busting Pittston Coal Company.
The last time management offered to negotiate was in December, when they threatened to have a 401K pension plan, which is funded by stock dividends, replace company pension contributions. 401K pension plans are a rip-off, but doubly insulting given Wall Street’s meltdown.
Stella offered a raise to those people it considered “skilled workers,” such as mechanics, who are mostly men. But their unity was so strong that everyone rejected management’s poisonous offer.
Shop Steward Mike Filippou, who is a Greek immigrant, says, “We all get along great. Different cultures, different religions. It’s an example for others to get along.” Difficult as things are, not a single striker has crossed the picket line, a testament to the anger and commitment of these workers—and the justness of their cause.
Management may treat most workers as unskilled, but that’s far from the reality, as veteran cookie maker Emelia Dorsu explains. “They have mixes but you have to use experience to know that sometimes you have to increase or decrease some ingredient in order to get the batter right. It takes years.”
She adds, “There’s a certain way you have to pick up the cookies. It’s a skill you that you learn over many, many years.” Dorsu and others insist that scab cookies, “just don’t taste right.”
The strike needs solidarity. A Committee in Support of the Stella D’oro Strikers has formed and meets weekly. It helps organize rallies and spreads the word on the boycott. On April 27 a busload of members of the Professional Staff Congress and the NY State University Teachers picketed in solidarity.
The previous week, City College students in Manhattan ended their campus rally against New York state tuition hikes and budget cuts by getting on a nearby subway train to the strike picket line, singing union songs all the way to the Bronx.
In September, the union filed an “unfair labor practice” with the National Labor Relations Board for its refusal to negotiate in good faith. A preliminary ruling upheld the union. A final hearing is May 12. Supporters are being urged to attend.
Key to the strike’s success will be more labor support. In truth, labor support has been spotty, to say the least. The AFL-CIO has pledged support, but not much has happened yet. The boycott is very important but while scabs are able to produce goods the battle is not yet won. Mass pickets are needed. If you’re in the New York City area, go to the 24-hour picket line and spread the word. Check out http://www.stelladorostrike2008.com for more information.
Said Emelia, “We are really suffering, but this is a time to fight for our rights. With the public’s help in New York City and the people all around America we’ll win this fight.”