Posted December 24, 2008
It is Christmas time, but there is little holiday cheer at the Stella D’Oro cookie factory in the Bronx. The 136 workers at the famous Italian biscuit company, members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) International Union Local 50, have now been on strike for more than four months and it may be several more before they head back to work. The workers’ contract extension expired at the end of July and Local 50 called the strike when the owners walked out of negotiations on August 13.
Workers at the plant are disappointed that their dispute with management could not be resolved before the holidays.
“With Christmas coming now, we are really sad to be out here in the street in the cold,” said machine operator Juan Thillet, standing outside the plant on Saturday. Thillet has worked at Stella D’Oro for eight years – a relative newcomer at the long-standing establishment – and is a regular on the daily picket line which the union posts, rain, shine, or snow, at 237th Street and Broadway.
“We would like to have – not a spectacular – but a good Christmas with our families, to buy some gifts, and enjoy it with our neighbors. It’s frustrating and nerve-wracking,” he said.
According to Emilia Dorsu, a Stella D’Oro employee for 18 years, many of her coworkers are single parents.
“They need the money for children around the holidays,” she said. “You cannot tell children otherwise – if they want something you have to provide for them. The unemployment money we get now is not enough to pay bills and to make children happy.”
But negotiations between the company and the union remain at a standstill. The company’s owners, Connecticut-based private equity firm Brynwood Partners, are demanding concessions which they cannot accept, workers said.
Among its demands, says shop steward Michael Filippou, Brynwood is insisting on a 25 percent reduction in wages; elimination of Saturday overtime; and a new 20 percent employee contribution to healthcare. The company’s proposed contract also eliminates four holidays, one week of vacation, and all 12 paid sick days workers currently receive.
“They want to take $1 out of our wages every year for the next five years,” Filippou said on the picket line. “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.”
Workers also accuse Brynwood of failing to negotiate in good faith. “We offered to give back some sick days and holidays,” said Eddie Marrero, a foreman who has worked at the plant for 29 years. “The company just laughed at us and walked out of negotiations.”
“It’s their way or the highway,” adds Dorsu.
In talks earlier this month, however, Brynwood did offer one change to its initial proposal: they announced their intention to withdraw from the workers’ pension fund and replace it with an individual retirement plan, or 401(k).
“In this year, now, a 401k is not a very good idea,” said Filippou, shaking his head derisively.
This is not the first clash between Brynwood Partners and workers at Stella D’Oro. The firm, which specializes in “control investments” in lower middle market companies, according to their website, acquired Stella D’Oro from Kraft in 2006. Almost immediately, they shed the company of its in-house distribution system, outsourcing the jobs of Teamster drivers at the Bronx facility to non-union independent contractors.
Brnywood’s negative history with the drivers – as well as cofounder and senior partner Hendrik Hartong, Jr.’s past involvement with the notorious union-busting Pittston Coal Company – have workers worried that they and their union may be next.
“They came with a plan,” insists Thillet indignantly, walking up and down the line. “They did this to the drivers. They made them go out on a strike, they finished with the union, and now they have independent contractors delivering the cookies. They’re trying to force us out.”
Filippou, the shop steward, agrees. “They’re trying to make a quick dollar – get rid of the union and sell the company afterwards for a good amount of money,” he said. “If they get rid of the union, they don’t pay vacations, holidays, pensions, nothing. So they’ll have very cheap labor and they’re going to sell it to somebody else for a lot of money.”
“They refuse to show us the books. If they’re doing so badly, we want to see the books,” he adds. Otherwise, “we’ll be here as long as it takes.”
Brynwood Partners did not return calls for comment. In a December 18 letter sent to striking workers, however, the firm warned that it has now filled more than half of the positions at the cookie plant with “permanent replacement employees.”