by Marty Goodman
What began in August 2008 as a strike at the Stella D’Oro bakery in the Bronx became an 11-month protracted war and one of the great labor battles in recent New York history. The Stella D’Oro workers became a national symbol of resistance to a heartless economic system.
Stella bosses had demanded slashing wages as much as 25%, making insurance premiums unaffordable and eliminating holidays, vacation and sick pay. During the strike not one of the 136 strikers crossed the line, a rare achievement.
On October 8, Brynwood Partners, the recent owners of Stella D’Oro, closed its doors, throwing 136 union workers out of a job in a brazen act of union busting. Some Stella workers have been there for over 30 years.
After Stella boss Dan Meyer announced the closing, one worker, George Kahassi, shouted into his face “The workers united will never be defeated!” About 90 workers chanted along with Kahassi for several emotion filled minutes.
The workers then cleared out their lockers and filed out, some in tears, but heroes nonetheless. One Stella worker of 29 years lost his father the day before he also lost his job.
The Stella workforce was heavily immigrant, mostly Latina, but also from Italy, Greece, Albania, Kosovo, West Africa, Eritrea and India. They are represented by Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM).
Brynwood sold the bakery September 9 to Lance, Inc., a non-union junk-food company, for an estimated $12 to 17 million. The exact price remains a secret.
Local 50 President Joyce Alston told Socialist Action described Brynwood as, “The most arrogant, egotistical group of people that I’ve ever dealt with, bar none.”
Typical of the capitalists that have thrown millions into unemployment lines, Brynwood Partners is a Wall Street hedge fund company that boasts of delivering high profits to its’ wealthy investors….meaning, of course, profits on the backs of working people!
The investment firm of Goldman-Sachs, the largest recipient in federal bailout funds ($12.9 billion), is a major investor in Brynwood Partners. Goldman-Sachs plans to distribute an incredible $16 billion in employee bonuses in 2009.
Lance acted quickly to move Stella D’Oro’s machinery and all production to its non-union plant in Ashland, Ohio, defying the demands of the Stella workers, union leaders and community activists to keep the union jobs in the Bronx. The Stella D’Oro company was founded by Italian immigrants in 1932. The plant is considered a Bronx landmark.
About a week later the workers received contractual severance pay, although a union rep estimated that about 40% of outstanding contractual severance pay remains to be fought out in court.
Over the years Brynwood had received $425,000 in city tax abatements (tax breaks) to keep production and jobs in the Bronx. City officials claim that there is no legal recourse under New York’s (crooked) capitalist laws to prevent bosses from absconding with machinery paid for, in part, by New York’s working class.
Moreover, capitalist law is rigged so that it is legally very difficult to stop companies from closing plants in retaliation for a union’s unwillingness to accept concessions, although a Local 50 appeal is pending with the National Labor Relations Board.
What is needed to stop company shutdowns and job loss nationwide is mobilizing the power of the labor movement to stop scabs in their tracks and shut down production cold. Reliance on the boss friendly court system is a deadly trap for workers.
During the strike itself, New York’s “thugs in blue” also showed their true colors as allies of the bosses. “They treated us like bums,” said shop steward Mike Filippou, a Stella mechanic for 14 years and a union officer. Workers were harassed while cops allowed scabs free entry to the plant. Canvas shelters used by strikers to shield them from the summer heat on the picket line were torn down by cops. In the winter, cops extinguished fires that kept strikers warm. In the beginning, chairs were confiscated. Police even confiscated knitting needles used by older women workers to pass the time on the line.
On June 30, in response to a union appeal, the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that Brynwood “bargained in bad Faith” with Local 50 and ordered the company to take back the workers and negotiate a contract. In an act of retaliation the company announced the day workers returned on July 7 that it would be closing in 90 days.
The company’s October 8th closure at 3 pm was a cynical move by Stella bosses to catch union leaders downtown at a well attended press conference against the Stella shutdown on the steps of City Hall.
THE BOSSES PARTIES AND UNION BUREAUCRATS
Even in an election year, New York’s Democrat turned Republican billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg, did nothing to save Stella jobs other than to say, “We’re looking into a few things.” Bloomberg and his cronies have supported job busting and privatization schemes in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The disappearance of Stella D’Oro and the loss of union jobs represent a continued draining of industry in New York City, where the official unemployment rate is 10.3%.
The City Council, dominated by the Democratic Party, passed a toothless resolution in support of keeping jobs in the Bronx. Other Democratic Party officials, such as mayoral candidate and City Controller, Bill Thompson, made noises about losing Stella jobs and “defending the middle class,” but did nothing to mobilize the Democratic Party base, nor suggest bills for a city take-over of the plant to save jobs under “eminent domain” provisions.
Throughout the Stella struggle the Obama administration remained silent. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the New York senator until 2009.
The local City Labor Council affiliate of the AFL-CIO, wedded to the Democratic Party, played no role in mobilizing union members. Rally after rally, union officials stayed away, with the notable exception of the college staff and university teachers in the Professional Staff Congress and the New York State University Teachers.
The indifference of the union bureaucrats was in stark contrast to the respect shown for the Stella struggle by New York’s rank and file workers. The 80 or so Stella workers and supporters who marched and then rallied at the annual September 12th Labor Day Parade were greeted with cheers and pumping fists from every union contingent.
At a large New York labor event in September, which headlined new AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, the entire crowd stood to cheer the Stella workers in the audience when they were acknowledged by the M.C. But, before the event, Trumka’s speechwriter flatly refused a request that Trumka recognize the strikers in his speech.
STELLA WORKERS ASSESS THEIR STRUGGLE
For striker Oscar Hernandez, a Guatemalan immigrant, the workers greatest achievement was that “No one crossed the picket line. He added, “We must say no to concessions and stay together.”
Not one striker that I’ve spoken to regretted striking.
Emile Dorsu said to Socialist Action, “I was thinking its’ been a failure. But, after speaking to some people, they say that we motivated them. People say that we proved to Brynwood Partners that we wouldn’t take it lying down. We proved we can stand up and fight. That makes me feel like, ‘OK even if we didn’t win now, we have set some example for people to fight for what they believe in.’ That makes me feel good.”
“At the beginning we didn’t know what to do. We had to learn a lot of things. By talking to you guys (the Stella D’Oro Support Committee) and other organizations we learned a lot of things. If we knew what to do from the beginning it would have been different.”
Dorsu added, “The politicians abandoned us. They did nothing.”
Shop Steward Mike Filippou told Socialist Action, “If we had 20,000 workers around Stella, the bosses couldn’t win. The labor movement is so weak. The bosses take advantage of that.”
“We need solidarity,” Filippou continued. “When we are divided that gives the capitalists the power to do whatever they want. The wealth in this country is so concentrated its’ disgusting and the laws are made for them.”
“I’m so disgusted with the unions. When we wanted to sit-down to get what we earned, they said they’re afraid of lawsuits.”
He added, “Our Stella D’Oro Support Committee was a great thing. We had many rallies. We had people from every corner of the labor movement to help make our strike successful.”
Filippou was suspended during the final month in retaliation for his organizing. He may have an agreement with the company on “reinstatement,” severance pay and unemployment benefits, but its still being negotiated.
Filippou concluded by saying, “I’m very proud of my co-workers. We stayed out and fought. But, it’s not over yet. We have to convince the city to allow CITGO petroleum (owned by the Venezuelan government-MG) to make Brynwood sell it and make it into a worker co-op, as they’ve said they’re still willing to do.” Although the equipment is gone the physical plant remains and is still owned by Brynwood.
In September, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez referred to the Stella D’Oro struggle in his address to the United Nations on September 25, after he was familiarized with the struggle the day before at a labor meeting in New York. Chavez offered to buy the company. “We could turn it into a socialist company if Obama authorizes me,” he said.
Whatever the final outcome, the Stella D’Oro workers have written their own chapter in labor history. For a complete history of the struggle go to http://www.stelladorostrike.com.