It was a rough afternoon.
At 2:00 PM yesterday, I was standing in front of City Hall in lower Manhattan, serving as an extra at a press conference for the Stella D’oro workers. After winning an arduous 11 month strike against concessions, the workers have been fighting plans by new owners Lance, Inc. to move the 78 year old bakery from the Bronx to Ashtabula, Ohio and reopen non-union.
The press conference/mini-rally had been a good one, though major media was thin on the ground, Speakers from the plant, a range of union officials and other supporters gave short sharp statements, demanding that Mayor Bloomberg do something to save Stella D’oro and its union jobs. As we were about to break up, two of the workers got hasty phone calls from the plant. Managers had told the morning shift that when they left at 3:00 PM, the bakery was shutting down!
Maybe a quarter of the 100-plus at City Hall headed up to 237th Street and Broadway, where the arriving shift had been ushered into work to empty their lockers. They were still trickling out at 3:00 when the day shift came out en masse, carrying plastic bags with whatever they had had inside. The three dozen supporters and workers outside the gate clapped as they did and there were chants that had become familiar to all from almost a year of picketing.
Still, while some workers looked angry, many had tears in their eyes, and the majority seemed to be in shock, a few still wearing their production-line hairnets. You know how it is--even if you know that something bad is almost definitely coming down the pike, it’s still a shock when it hits. Now imagine this layoff hitting workers with decades at the company, men and women who maintained a picket line for eleven months without a single worker out of 134 crossing it, breadwinners who had been back on the job only since an NLRB decision in their favor in the summer ended management’s scab-herding.
The struggle isn’t over. There’s a rally at the bakery at 3 PM today, which should be well-attended, and there’s a legal
strategy to try and to stop the company from moving out equipment based on the City’s right to recoup the half a million in tax abatements given Stella to upgrade its equipment and keep it in the Bronx.
I know it sounds kind of cheeseball, but this is a blow not only to the Stella workers and their supporters but to the whole working class—and for several reasons.
The Stella workers, members of Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, a rather dozy outfit on the whole, had become heroes to rank and file labor activists in NYC and, indeed, around the country, over the course of their long strike, and had drawn the attention of the city’s trade union establishment. These officials eventually proclaimed it, as they did at yesterday’s press conference, the front-line battle for all unionized workers in NY. The media, drawn by the David and Goliath aspect of the battle, gave sporadic but generally favorable coverage, more than small strikes and other labor disputes generally get.
Then there’s the whole Goliath thing. Stella D’oro spent decades as a family-owned business with a solid presence in a regional niche market. After the founders’ deaths it was sold to Nabisco. In 2000, Nabisco was eaten by Kraft Foods, now the second largest food and beverage company in the world. Kraft screwed up the tiny Stella D’oro brand bad and then unloaded it in 2006 on a private equity firm called Brynwood, whose efforts to pillage it before reselling it included the concession demands which triggered the strike.
Once the NLRB ruling went against them, Brynwood’s partners (perhaps upset by picket lines in front of their swank suburban homes as well as the failure of their “operating expertise” to produce the expected shower of gold) sold to Lance, Inc. (Even so Stella can’t compete with Simmons Bedding, recently featured in a NY Times story about how it had been flipped seven times in 20 years by investment groups—read “looters”—finally winding up in bankruptcy.
Lance is a publicly traded low-end snack company based in North Carolina—with Goldman Sachs as a large and influential shareholder. Goldman Sachs is, of course, far and away the biggest winner so far in the feeding frenzy in the shark tank of global finance capital that was kicked off by the economic meltdown. Are they so fat and so arrogant that they can ignore the protests and media attention that come with screwing a handful of mainly immigrant workers? So far, it looks like their answer is yes.
I plan to hit the rally today and learn more about what the next steps in the battle may be. While the prospects are daunting, there are a few positive lessons that deserve to be highlighted. First, the small but dedicated solidarity committee did effective work throughout the strike and since. Any number of socialist groups had a presence, with comrades from Solidarity playing a noteworthy role in keeping things on track, but the most striking thing was how generally well-behaved cadre from such diverse and sometimes fractious groups as Progressive Labor, the ISO, Workers World, Revolutionary Organization of Labor and others were. As the small US left, with no hegemonic organization, faces the continuing meltdown, such behavior will be crucial in building the broadest possible resistance among the people.
Second, while broader support for the Stella workers, especially from the NYC labor and political establishments, has tended to be a day late and a dollar short, a sign that things may be changing for the better comes with recent weeks’ firestorm of protest in the Boston area following the Hyatt Corporation’s layoffs of over 100 veteran hotel housekeeping staff and their replacement with part-timers working for a subcontractor for $8 an hour and no benefits.
Hyatt had the housekeepers train their replacements before telling them they were canned! Hyatt management pleads the necessity of the economy, but it is exactly awareness of the meltdown that appears to be driving the ferocity of the response from area residents, politicians and unions. Hats off to the Boston Taxi Drivers Association who wrote the company stating that if the workers were not rehired, the 1700 member cab drivers would boycott the company’s three area hotels!
So support the Stella D’oro workers. Support the Hyatt workers. And get ready to throw your weight behind whatever battle erupts where you live as greedy or desperate bosses try to make workers shoulder the costs of the deepening meltdown.
October 9, 2009
posted by Jimmy Higgins
It was a rough afternoon.