Bronx bakery battle: Workers at Stella D’oro Cookie Factory in the Bronx emerged as symbols of working-class resistance during a time of economic crisis
MOBILIZING MOM: Sara Rodriguez leads the charge on the Stella D'oro picket line. PHOTO: JOEL COOK.
When the 136 factory workers at the Stella D'oro Biscuit Co. in the Bronx went on strike Aug. 13, they didn't expect to be out on the street for long. Evelyn Rivera, who had only been at Stella D'oro since August 2007, recalls the reassurances she received from some of the factory's older hands. "Maybe five weeks," they told her.
The strike had been launched to protest, among other concessions, wage cuts of up to 26 percent demanded by Brynwood Partners, the private equity firm that purchased Stella D'oro from Kraft Foods, Inc. in 2006.
Declaring Brynwood's terms unacceptable, the workers set up a 24-hour picket line outside the factory gates at 237th Street and Broadway that, by their own account, better resembled a neighborhood party than a scene of dissent.
"We used to barbecue every night for the people," says Stella D'oro employee Mike Filippou.
But as weeks on the picket line turned into months, the Stella D'oro strikers began to realize that they had underestimated Brynwood's unyieldingness.
"In the summer, we didn't know better," Filippou concedes. "We wasted a lot of time."
The stakes abruptly became apparent when, a month into the strike, the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy and nationwide unemployment soared. As longtime Stella D'oro employee Emelia Dorsu puts it, "Right now you can't even find a job."
But far from cowed by the odds they face, after seven months on the picket line, the Stella D'oro strikers have mounted an energetic campaign that has been boosted by outside support. In the process, they have emerged as representatives of a larger struggle escalating between labor and management as the economy continues to spiral downward.
"[Business owners] are going to start to use the recession to take back wages and benefits, so I think people should resist," Filippou says. As he sees it, the Stella D'oro strikers "are making the beginning for other people to start resisting."
A new business model
As a workers' representative to the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) International Union Local 50, Mike Filippou had already been through two sets of contract negotiations when he and other union officials sat down with representatives from Brynwood in late May 2008 to negotiate a new contract for the Stella D'oro workers. He expected the meeting to follow the model of past negotiations: "You give me this, I give you that."
Instead, Fillipou says, "as soon as they get to the table, the company gives the union reps a big presentation about how bad the company is doing, how many millions they are losing. I was ready to cry."
A lawyer from Brynwood then rolled out a proposal that divided the Stella D'oro workforce into two camps, the skilled and the non-skilled. Among the skilled the company counted the factory's mechanics, electricians, foremen and mixers. Among the non-skilled were the sanitation workers and cookie packers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the workforce. While the wages of the skilled would remain intact, from the salary of the so-called non-skilled, Brynwood wanted to subtract one dollar from the hourly wage each year for the next five years. Under this plan, workers who earned $37,000 in 2007 would see their annual income drop to $27,000 by 2012.
Brynwood's other proposals, which extended to the entire Stella D'oro workforce, included the elimination of overtime pay and all sick days, plus the loss of one week of vacation and four holiday days. Brynwood also wanted employees to pay for 20 percent of the cost of a company healthcare plan, whereas before the employees had paid nothing for health benefits.
Moreover, says Joyce Alston, Local 50 president, Brynwood rewrote "anything [in the contract] that gave members a sense of protection," including work rules and conditions of employment. "They would have a grievance procedure but it wouldn't be effective because the contract was saying that the company could change your schedule, change your job at will," a condition that would leave the workers at the mercy of management. "You give that contract, you give your union," Filippou says.
According to Alston, the union requested a copy of Brynwood's financial records for an accountant to review in order to verify the company's claims. She says that Brynwood denied union reps a copy, informing them that they could access the financial records only at company headquarters, in Greenwich, Conn., where they would be allowed to sit and take notes.
Brynwood has not responded to repeated requests by The Indypendent for comment
Weeks of haggling followed. Once it became apparent that Brynwood would not budge on its central demands, Stella D'oro workers voted unanimously to strike.
In September, Local 50 filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal governmental agency charged with adjudicating labor disputes. As its central grievance Local 50 cited Brynwood's refusal to negotiate in good faith.
The company evidently recognized the value of some of its employees to the factory's operation. Filippou says that he and other "skilled" Stella D'oro workers were approached by management in the weeks prior to the strike.
"They were betting on the skilled workers throwing the rest beneath the tracks," Filippou says. Eddie Marrero, a Stella D'oro employee of 29 years, believes that Brynwood's assumption that it could divide the workforce reveals a fundamental difference between the private equity firm and the workers.
"Our position wasn't greed. Our position was respect," Marrero says.
What both the strikers and Brynwood had supposed a quick and easy fight has evolved into a seven-month battle.
Shortly after the Stella D'oro workers walked out, Brynwood made its first move by hiring scores of strikebreakers.
Local 50 responded to Brynwood maneuvers with a call to boycott Stella D'oro "scab cookies."
PUSH BACK: Members of the Committee in Support of the Stella D'oro Strikers try to prevent strikebreakers from entering the Bronx-based factory March 11. PHOTO: JOEL COOK
Beyond the boycott, the union believed it had few options other than to wait for the NLRB ruling, which stood to prevent Brynwood from hiring strikebreakers as permanent replacement workers.
"The union is fighting the legal battle," says Local 50 President Alston. "Other than that, your hands are kind of tied." Since August, the Stella D'oro strikers have squeaked by on a weekly income of $105 from their union strike fund and an unemployment check, to which they are legally entitled due to Brynwood's hiring of strikebreakers. The strikers' unemployment benefits will expire this August.
The Stella D'oro workers entered their fifth month on the picket line with the realization that they could not rely upon a creeping legal process. This realization came to a head at the end of December when community members joined with strikers to organize a more energetic and aggressive counter-attack. The fruit of this collaboration has been the Committee in Support of the Stella D'oro Strikers.
Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, a nurse and long-time member of the New York State Nurses Association, describes the Committee as a coalition of diverse individuals, many affiliated with other unions or various left-wing activist groups.
"Different people were doing different things to help [the strikers]," says Sheridan- Gonzalez. "Then some of us said, 'We need to do this together.'"
What began with one meeting at a McDonald's has now evolved into weekly meetings during which strikers and community members sit down together to hash out a strategy.
The support group produces and distributes fliers, calls press conferences, organizes rallies, raises money for the Local 50 strike fund, and reaches out to other unions and labor groups.
One of the Committee's campaigns aims to bring the Stella D'oro boycott to the attention of retailers by sending out teams to petition store managers to pull Stella D'oro products from the shelf.
According to Stella D'oro supporter Micah Landau, the strike committee has focused most of its energies of late on Fairway. Landau says the Committee is also targeting several larger grocery store chains including Stop & Shop and Food Emporium.
In this and other ways, strike support committees, which have not been prevalent since the 1930s, can sidestep the legal obstacles which so often stop more aggressive actions by unions and their members.
But not all Stella D'oro strikers have jumped on board. Indeed, far more strikers do not attend Committee meetings than do.
While Sheridan-Gonzalez cites a suspicion of outsiders as one factor contributing to low-involvement, striker Emelia Dorsu points to another reason.
"I think that when this first started, we thought it was just us. It was our problem and we have to solve it," Dorsu says. "I didn't know that there's a lot of support and solidarity out there. I didn't know that people care so much about other people. I didn't. Until I started getting involved and going out."
On March 5, Dorsu and the rest of the Stella D'oro strikers took a break from the picket line and headed to City Hall in order to participate in a giant rally organized by a number of New York City union locals to protest state budget cuts threatening public sector workers.
The strikers, who have received various levels of support from many unions – including the Professional Staff Congress, United Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union and the Transit Workers – came to the rally bearing a message of solidarity.
"When you go out there and you see all those people fighting for the same cause," Dorsu says, "[you] feel a part of something that can make change, that can benefit people."
Two weeks after the City Hall rally, the NLRB issued a preliminary ruling in the Unfair Labor Practice filed by Local 50 in September that found in the union's favor. The case will go to a NLRB hearing in April.
Citing the possibility of a Brynwood appeal, Local 50 President Joyce Alston calls the labor board's ruling "a step in the right direction," but cautions "the battle's not over by any means."
It's a battle that Alston considers "representative of the entire country in terms of working men and women."
"What we're giving is an example," says Stella D'oro striker Eddie Marrero. "You gotta hold your ground no matter what, and take pride in yourself and don't let nobody come in here and say, 'You don't deserve this. You make too much for what you do.'"
"This is where you let them know: I am a human being working for a living," Marrero say.
Joel Cook contributed additional reporting for this article.