The Saga of Stella D'oro, Inspiration and Lessons

— Micah Landau and René Rojas

THE POWERFUL LABOR struggle at the Bronx-based Stella D’oro Biscuit Co. recently came to an abrupt end after 14 long, hard months. The 136 workers at the plant, all members of Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) International Union, withstood 11 months on the picket line before winning a court order in July that returned them to work under the terms of their previous contract. But the workers and their supporters were unable to prevent the factory’s closure.

Brynwood Partners, the Connecticut-based private equity firm whose draconian contract demands provoked the strike, shuttered the plant on October 8th and has since sold the brand, as well as inventory and equipment, to snack-food giant Lance, Inc. Production has been relocated to a Lance facility in Ashland, Ohio; the workers in the Bronx, however, remain out of their jobs and out of luck.

Although it ends badly, the story of Stella D’oro is an inspiring tale of workers’ defiance against the odds and an object lesson for both workers and labor organizers who may find themselves confronting similar situations as the economic recession persists. What has surprised all parties is how a seemingly inconsequential strike of 136 workers in a semi-obscure cookie factory captured the imagination of radicals and labor activists across New York and attracted attention across the country.

Strike!

Both conservative and “progressive” detractors of the campaign at Stella D’oro insist that the workers and their union were playing with fire by striking in a poor economy. But this misses the point: The strike was purely defensive. The workers at Stella D’oro did not want to strike — they were forced to.

With the contract extension under which they had worked since the spring set to expire, the workers of Stella D’oro found themselves at the end of July 2008 facing an intransigent management and employer. According to Local 50 president Joyce Alston, Brynwood Partners refused to bargain in good faith:

“No matter what counterproposal we offered in negotiations, there was no bargaining with them,” Alston said. “They don’t make modifications. They tell you what they want and the only way to get a contract with them is if you accept what they want to give you.”

But Brynwood Partners did not intend to give anything; they wanted to take away. The company called for a 26% reduction in wages; elimination of Saturday overtime; and a new 20% employee contribution to health are. The company’s proposed contract also would have eliminated four holidays, one week of vacation, and all 12 paid sick days workers had previously received.

Even so, the union did not take a strike vote until, on August 13th, management abruptly walked out of negotiations. Needless to say, after this insult, the vote was unanimous — and the strike was on!

As Michael Filippou, a steward and mechanic and perhaps the campaign’s best known strike leader, said at the time, “They want to take $1 out of our wages every year for the next five years. Right now, our average is about $18 an hour. In 2012, we will only make $13 an hour. That’s why we’re out here.”

Neither Brynwood Partners nor the workers and their union expected the strike to drag on for 11 months and neither side was prepared for it. Both had underestimated the other and, critically, what appeared to many workers, and probably to the union leadership, as a simple contract dispute was from management’s perspective a much more profound struggle over the terms of production and balance of forces at Stella D’oro.

Union-Busting

A former executive of the Pittston Coal Company, which incited and then lost a famous and combative strike by the United Mine Workers two decades ago, Hendrik J. Hartong, Sr., Brynwood Partners’ Senior Managing Partner is no stranger to tough labor battles.

Brynwood and its bosses have also had more recent experience with union-busting. The firm, which specializes in “control investments” in lower-middle market companies, according to their website, acquired Stella D’oro from Kraft in 2006.

The contract for Teamster delivery drivers at the Bronx facility expired almost immediately thereafter and management refused to renew it, forcing a strike. Their goal, quickly accomplished: shed the company of its in-house distribution system, outsourcing union delivery jobs to non-union independent contractors.

The conflict still stirs up strong emotions from Richard Volpe, secretary-treasurer of IBT 550. He represented the drivers in negotiations with Stella D’oro in 2006.

A driver for the company in the early 1970s, Volpe remembers the days when the bakery was a family operation. “It was a great company,” he said. “We considered it the best route sales job in New York City. Then Brynwood Partners came in, those heartless bastards.”

Many workers believe that, as with the Teamsters in 2006, the firm was less interested in securing concessions than in breaking the union outright. Why else would management have put forward demands they knew the workers could never accept?

As machine operator Juan Thillet stated matter-of-factly on a frigid day on the picket line last December, “They came with a plan. They did this to the drivers. They made them go out on strike, they finished with the union, and now they have independent contractors delivering the cookies. They’re trying to force us out.”

While in 2006 the bakers were accused of crossing the drivers’ picket lines, they argue that they were put in an impossible situation. They maintain that they were given no time to prepare for the strike and that, faced with threats of summary dismissal, they could not have stayed out with the drivers. Needless to say, the drivers’ earlier loss hurt their own chances to win in this most recent conflict.

Resistance

But if Brynwood Partners thought the strike would end quickly, they were sorely mistaken. They intended to break the union on the picket line, establish absolute control in the plant, and use their subsequent unmitigated power on the job to drive down labor costs over the life of a five-year contract before selling the brand for a windfall profit. What they did not anticipate was such stiff resistance.

The Stella D’oro workers were divided across age, gender, craft, income, and national lines. Brynwood sought to sharpen these divisions, exploiting them to break the strike. To this end, they offered the predominantly male “skilled” workers, considered leaders among their peers, modest wage increases to soften the impact of the reduction in benefits. But it was precisely this group, alongside an impressive group of militant “unskilled” female workers, that constituted the layer of activist-workers who led their coworkers into the strike and propelled it forward during 11 months of labor strife.

Workers did face real divisions in the period leading up to and during the strike. Personal rivalries at times intersected with gender and shop-floor conflicts that bubbled to the surface. As the strike dragged on, there were moments in which some workers, even very active ones, questioned the leadership of the established shop-floor leaders. What is remarkable is not that these divisions and conflicts emerged, but that they were consistently overcome, and that not a single worker ever crossed the union’s picket line.

This solidarity and ferocity during the strike were all the more surprising since most of the workers had never endured a strike lasting more than several weeks.

Some came with a wealth of activist experience from militant struggles in their home countries. But when the strike began in August, most workers — as well as the union leadership, apparently — figured they would be back to work, new contract in hand, within a few weeks. Workers barbecued and relaxed in lawn chairs on the line; their Labor Day rally with politicians had more the atmosphere of a carnival or fair than a militant labor struggle.

Only as weeks turned into months and the weather grew colder did it become apparent that this was a different kind of strike. Management was not simply bargaining hard before resolving a standard industry contract; they were out for blood.

Unprepared

The leadership of Local 50 adopted a legal strategy to force management to resume stalled negotiations. This effort, which centered on the company’s failure to provide pertinent financial documents to the union — a violation of the legal obligation to “bargain in good faith”— was necessary and good. But legal recourse should not have superseded the organization of rallies, corporate campaigning, or, ultimately, preparation for direct action at the plant. In any event, it entirely replaced them, and when it did not yield quick results, strikers were left to languish on the line.

So what held the workers together in this situation? At least among the shop-floor leaders, resistance to management’s demands quickly became a matter of dignity. Many had worked at the plant since the days when it was a family business and resented Brynwood Partners’ impersonal, speculative approach to production. They felt that they had helped to build Stella D’oro and deserved a just contract in recompense for their labor and loyalty. They were also proud of their craft and of their product and knew that its quality depended on their skill. Hence the dismay some workers expressed upon seeing the misshapen cookies produced by scab workers during the strike.

Of course, they were also painfully aware of the impact steep concessions would have on their quality of life. But as the strike dragged on, the question of concessions seemed to become secondary, and the struggle instead took on the character of a test of wills. The workers’ defiant dignity and sense of ownership is best demonstrated by the chant which became the campaign’s rallying cry: “We are Stella!”

Community Support

When local community members first started to visit their picket line in earnest in December, the workers appeared severely demoralized. The lawn chairs and barbecues had long since disappeared — and so had the fair-weather friends the union had cultivated among New York’s Democratic establishment. The workers were cold and alone, four months into a strike with no end in sight, surviving on unemployment checks and a meager $105 weekly strike benefit. Worst of all, they were picketing a plant that remained in production, without any real plan for victory.

Community and labor activists decided to take action. At the end of December, they called for a discussion of the strike at a local church and, with the participation of several strikers, held the first meeting of what would become a vibrant independent strike support committee: the Stella D’oro Solidarity Committee. The gathering brought together a broad sector of New York’s radical left and labor communities, including rank-and-file member-activists from an array of unions and militants from diverse socialist organizations.

While most of these activists were new to the strike, a critical few, active in the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the City University professors’ union, had been present on the picket line since the strike’s beginning and had successfully enlisted their union’s support in the struggle. Their work inside the PSC, which ultimately also yielded support from the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the PSC’s state affiliate, served as a model for other union members during the campaign.

Unfortunately, it proved extremely difficult for activists in other unions to replicate their success. One exception was the work done inside the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which very early supported the strike and donated $5000 to the Local 50 strike fund. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) active with the committee also successfully prevailed upon their union leadership to support the strike and turn out members to rallies.

Yet despite the committee’s efforts, most unions turned a blind eye to Stella D’oro or offered at best nominal support, sending symbolic delegations to strike events and inviting strikers to speak at union meetings. This was, of course, too little, too late.

Although most unions were slow to act, the strategy of speaking and leafleting at union meetings — and at any other event which was likely to have a sympathetic audience — did raise awareness of the strike. So did the committee’s efforts to canvass and speak directly with workers at large workplaces like bus barns and public hospitals, allowing it to build several impressive rallies at the plant, the largest of which, in May, the Daily Kos estimated had more than 1000 participants. This was quite a feat for an all-volunteer committee and demonstrated its growing organizing capacity.

Between rallies, the committee also helped to organize trips of students, teachers, and community organizations to visit the picket line and worked to strengthen the local’s boycott of Stella D’oro products. Chanting “No contract, no cookies!,” committee members and strikers jointly delivered their first boycott letter to Stop & Shop, a grocery chain and major retailer of Stella D’Oro cookies, on January 10.

We also organized informational pickets outside stores, most notably Fairway, where we were confronted by security and taunted by managers, with the intention of pressuring them to cancel their contracts with Stella D’oro.

But neither pickets at the plant nor the boycott effort could, on their own, win the strike. Picketers were unable to prevent scabs from entering the plant, although on one occasion we did succeed in turning several away. And the boycott, we knew, would take years to win; boycott activities like weekly leafleting shifts were instead used primarily to raise awareness and keep supporters mobilized.

None of these tactics brought the strike closer to resolution. But they did turn it into a citywide issue and more and more support poured in. This gave the workers the strength to stay off the job while their legal case against the company made its way through the courts. A favorable court ruling ended the strike in July 2009, but without the committee, in which the workers participated every step of the way, and the activities it inspired, it is less likely the strikers would have been able to hold out.

The committee served a second valuable function. In the absence of effective leadership from the local officers or meetings where workers could make collective decisions, the committee helped the rank-and-file leadership to imagine and execute an activist strike campaign. It provided a space for workers and community members alike to discuss and develop their ideas.

In December 2008, when the committee was first formed, it was primarily led by experienced community activists. But by the end of the strike in July 2009, the workers’ rank-and-file leadership was directing all of its most important decisions.

At times the nature of the committee’s relationship with these leaders was hotly debated — as were its relationships with the local leadership and with other unions and labor bodies — but in general committee members agreed that its purpose should not be to make decisions in its own right, but to support and help execute those of the recognized shop-floor leaders.

In this way, the committee established itself as an alternative base of support — and provided organizing capacity — for rank-and-file leaders who resented the local’s lackadaisical approach. They were not content with relying solely on legal strategies and wanted to do more to fight back. What emerged through the committee was a militant rank-and-file group of strikers who worked with supporters to develop an activist strategy.

Return to Work

This dynamic shifted in July 2009, after 11 months on the picket line, when a favorable court order returned the strikers to work without concessions. Administrative Law Judge Stephen Davis found that Brynwood Partners had failed to bargain in good faith when it denied the union access to pertinent financial documents. He also ruled that the company had initiated an illegal lockout when in May it refused the union’s unilateral offer to return to work under the terms of the workers’ old contract, and awarded the workers two months back-pay.

The day workers returned to work, Brynwood Partners announced its intention to shutter the plant in 90 days. Having lost at their game of hardball, they wanted to cut their losses and punish their workforce for daring to fight. Still celebrating their victory, the workers were confronted with imminent plant closure. The committee’s celebratory rally, replete with flowers and cake, did not clarify the new situation.

During the strike the union officers had had few answers to offer their members; the best they could do was tell them to sit tight and wait for the courts. The committee, on the other hand, offered the chance to actively fight back — and since it was supported by prominent worker-leaders, the local leadership had no choice but to tolerate, and even support, its activities. With the legal victory, the local leadership used its authority as a wedge against the committee and its more militant approach.

Immediately after the return to work, the committee proposed to shop-floor leaders that we hold a rally as soon as possible in order to keep up momentum. The leaders accepted our proposal and preparations for the rally moved forward, until the local intimated to worker-leaders that any militant action on our part might prejudice the courts against the union in its effort to secure an injunction against the plant closure. Several weeks later a second rally was similarly cancelled.

The shop-floor leaders adopted a cautious stance out of a deep concern for the best interests of their fellow workers. Having received redress from the courts — even if only a limited redress — they did not want to jeopardize future legal victories.

The committee’s successes appeared to pale in comparison. We had raised awareness, enlisted support, and restored agency to the workers during the strike, but we had few tangible results — such as a court order — to show for our efforts.

The final months were chaotic. Both workers and their supporters knew that the clock was ticking — in their break room workers had posted a calendar counting down the days until the expected plant closure— but no one had more than a vague idea of what to do. The one strategy that could have salvaged the situation — a plant occupation — was only first seriously considered far too late, and too little was done to implement it.

Instead, shortly after the return to work workers and supporters invited City Comptroller Bill Thompson, then running for mayor against Michael Bloomberg, to hold a press conference at the plant. He denounced the company and agreed to write letters to union pension funds urging divestment.

The Solidarity Committee also petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to grant an injunction against the plant closure until pending complaints could be resolved. And when the committee learned in late July of Brynwood Partners’ plan to sell Stella D’oro to Lance, Inc., we immediately threw up pickets outside Goldman Sachs, one of Lance’s primary investors. The action drew national attention on Fox Business News. An article in The New York Post on July 28th confirmed that, for the moment at least, the deal had collapsed.

None of this, however, amounted to a coherent strategy to keep Stella D’oro in the Bronx. As the clock ticked and potential “end-games” like the creation of a worker-cooperative withered on the vine, the committee grew increasingly inefficient and fractious. We had lacked a solid internal structure from the beginning; now this lack hindered our capacity to make unified and timely decisions.

The Final Act

In one of our final successful actions, workers and supporters celebrated the one-year anniversary of the strike with a defiant rally at the plant on August 15th. Three short weeks later Brynwood Partners delivered the coup de grace: the firm announced on September 8th that, contrary to all expectations, it had struck a final deal to sell the Stella D’oro brand to Lance, Inc. and would close the plant in early October.

Workers were to report to the plant the next morning for a meeting. The fear was that they would be summarily fired; supporters rushed to lend their moral support and on the outside chance that the workers decided to take action. Neither side, however, made a move.

On September 12th, the Stella D’oro workers and their supporters marched together toward the front of New York’s Labor Day Parade. Many workers turned out despite the cruel blow they had suffered only days before: they received a hero’s reception from the city’s organized workers. The march served to reinvigorate the workers and, at the time, appeared to be a high water mark for the campaign. But it was really a funeral march.

The committee’s last-ditch effort to keep the plant going centered on a possible buy-out by CITGO, the Venezuelan state oil company’s U.S. subsidiary. In September Hugo Chavez, in town for the annual meeting of heads-of-state at the United Nations, met with Stella D’oro workers and supporters. He expressed support for their struggle, referring to it in a CNN interview with Larry King shortly thereafter.

CITGO, we hoped, could serve as the vehicle for Chavez to manifest his support, buying Stella D’oro and placing it under the control of its workforce. But Brynwood Partners, intent on exacting revenge against the workers by outsourcing production, refused out of hand to consider the possibility of cutting a deal. They would not respond to CITGO’s queries.

A plant occupation might have forced them to reconsider — enough politicians and labor leaders, we were confident, would rally to exert significant pressure — but neither the workers nor their supporters were adequately prepared. As the workers were expelled from the factory on the October 8th, a handful of militant leaders called for their co-workers to sit down, but their call went unheeded.

Lessons

Through a variety of tactics the committee — including, always, the participation of the shop-floor leadership — was able to raise the profile of the Stella D’oro struggle. Indeed, it received regular coverage in New York’s major newspapers, including significant editorial coverage. It reached the halls of Congress when Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat from the Bronx, spoke about the strike in July. Even now, two months since the plant closure, it continues to attract attention: the self-serving leader of SEIU, Andy Stern, aware of the campaign’s resonance, recently released a statement of support for the Stella D’oro workers as part of his campaign against Goldman Sachs.

Despite these successes, the campaign was only able to go so far once the company indicated it would sell the brand and close down the operation. After all, the plant occupation at Republic Windows and Doors was intended to recuperate unpaid wages and benefits, not keep a plant in production, and happened only after lengthy discussions between the leadership and the rank and file. Without that level of unity and careful preparation, occupations and even work-to-rule campaigns can’t take place. What appears from the outside as spontaneous action is, in most cases, the product of careful and detailed preparation.

ATC 144, January-February 2010

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