NEW YORK — After an heroic strike that lasted 11 months, bakery workers at the Stella D’Oro company in the Bronx face imminent plant closure and the loss of 135 jobs. The shut-down has been ordered by the new Stella D’Oro owners, the non-union Lance, Inc. of North Carolina, makers of snack-sized junk food. Lance, which will now own the Stella D’Oro brand name, is moving production to its non-union plant in Ashland, Ohio.
At press time, Stella D’Oro is expected to begin layoffs around mid-October and to completely close by the end of the month. The Bronx plant, a fixture for over 70 years in the working-class neighborhood of Kingsbridge, is the sole producer of Stella D’Oro cookies and breadsticks.
Over the years, Stella D’Oro company is said to have received millions in tax breaks from New York City to maintain its facility in the Bronx. Stella D’Oro is one of the last factories in the city and represents a loss of union jobs when unemployment has reached over 10%.
On June 30 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Stella D’Oro, owned by Brynwood Partners, had bargained in “bad faith” and ordered the company to take workers back under the old contract and pay back wages. The Stella workers, organized by Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) struck in August 2008 against company demands for a 25 percent cut in wages and making health care unaffordable. Not one worker crossed the picket line during the entire 11 months.
In retaliation, Brynwood declared—the same day the workers returned—that the plant would close in 90 days if the union did not make big concessions or if a new owner were not found.
Brynwood is a hedge-fund outfit that seeks high returns for its wealthy investors. In court testimony, the company stated that it specialized in acquiring “iconic brand names” like Stella, “turning them around” (read, attacking workers), and selling them off in five to 10 years. Local 50 attorney Louis Nikolaidis told the New York Daily News, “Last year, they told us up front, because we’re a hedge fund, our investors expect a higher rate of return, and your members should expect a wage cut.”
The struggle of the Stella D’Oro workers has become a symbol of the fight against union busting and capitalism at its most brutal. Many BCTGM members have worked for Stella D’Oro for over 20 years. Most are women immigrants from Latin America, but also immigrants from Italy, Greece, and Ghana—as well as African Americans.
At a Sept. 23 press conference sponsored by the Stella D’Oro Support Committee, plans were announced for a Sept. 25 demonstration at the investment firm Goldman Sachs, the largest recipient of bailout funds ($12.9 billion), and then a march to City Hall.
Mike Filippou, a Stella strike leader, said, “Goldman Sachs is one of the main investors in the Lance company. Lance has no union and pays people very little. They [Goldman Sachs] are taking the people’s tax money from the stimulus package and moving operations to Ohio. It’s all in retaliation for our strike.” Filippou was suspended in mid-September in what he says is clear retaliation for his organizing activities.
About 300 Stella workers and supporters joined the protest on Sept. 25, chanting, “Keep Stella in the Bronx! Fight, fight, fight!” all the way to City Hall. Prominent were many members of the Professional Staff Congress, representing college and university teachers. However, the New York labor movement, bound hand and foot to the Democratic Party, was absent once again, having done scandalously little to mobilize in support of the Stella workers.
Every worker in New York City and beyond, organized or unorganized, needs to come to the defense of Local 50. Those in unions must demand that the leadership take action and mobilize the ranks to do whatever it takes to save jobs at Stella D’Oro. Labor has the power to stop the Brynwood and Lance criminals in their tracks. An injury to one is an injury to all!
In related news, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, mentioned the struggle at Stella D’Oro in his Sept. 25 address to the United Nations. Chavez referred to a direct appeal by Stella D’Oro workers and supporters the day before at a labor meeting featuring Chavez.
Chavez told the UN, “One of them said to me, ‘Why don’t you buy the company?’ I said, ‘I’m going to look into it.’” Chavez continued, “We could turn it into a socialist company if Obama authorizes me. The company can be bought and handed over to the workers.” For more information about the Stella D’Oro struggle, go to stelladorostrike.com. —Marty Goodman