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2009-07-09

Stella D’Oro Workers End 11-Month Strike After NLRB Victory, But Owner Threatens to Close Factory

Guests

Louie Nikolaidis, attorney for the workers at the Stella D’Oro cookie factory in the Bronx.

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More than 130 workers at the Stella D’Oro Biscuit Company in the Bronx have ended an eleven-month strike. The employees walked off the job last August after company officials tried to force them to accept a 20 percent pay cut, elimination of sick days and overtime, and other cutbacks. The workers returned to their jobs a week after the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to reinstate and pay back wages to the striking workers. The company’s owner, the Connecticut-based private equity fund Brynwood Partners, is now threatening to close the factory within ninety days. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In labor news, support for the Employee Free Choice Act grew this week on Capitol Hill with the swearing in of Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. In his first official act as a senator, Franken became a co-sponsor of the bill, which would make it easier for workers to vote on joining unions. Franken made the announcement at a reception Tuesday night at the AFL-CIO in Washington, DC.

    SEN. AL FRANKEN: As of about a half an hour ago, I became the co-sponsor of my first piece of legislation in the Senate, something called the Employee Free Choice Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Labor organizations are now pushing Democrats to renew their fight to pass EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act. With Franken, the Democrats effectively control sixty seats in the Senate, enough theoretically to overcome a Republican filibuster.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act continues in Washington, we turn now to a labor struggle here in New York. More than 130 workers at the Stella D’Oro Biscuit Company in the Bronx have ended an eleven-month strike. The workers returned to their jobs on Wednesday, a week after the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to reinstate and pay back wages to the striking workers.

The employees at Stella D’Oro walked off their job last August after company officials tried to force them to accept a 20 percent pay cut, elimination of sick days and overtime, reductions in vacations and holidays, and an increase in employee healthcare contributions.

While the Stella D’Oro workers have returned to their jobs, their fight isn’t over. The company’s owner, the Connecticut-based private equity fund Brynwood Partners, is now threatening to close the factory within ninety days.

Louie Nikolaidis joins us in the firehouse studio. He’s an attorney with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union.

We invited a representative from Stella D’Oro on the program, but they declined to join us.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Good morning, Juan and Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi.

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: How are you?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, this eleven months, as someone who has been on strike numerous times over my life, that is a long period of time to be out of work. How did the workers persevere? And talk about this bittersweet quality of coming back to work and finding the company is announcing it’s going to close in ninety days.

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: The way they persevered, first, is that they were a very tight-knit group. They had worked together a long time. This is a very skilled workforce and have worked together with each other for, you know, for sometimes ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years, so they know each other, so that helped. Also, the union had organized people to go out together, so it was a very organized strike when it started.

And they had very clear goals. This was not a tough decision for the workers of the union. The cuts were so draconian that there really wasn’t another option. I mean, sometimes you have to balance, you know, do we take these cuts, do we not take these cuts. Brynwood came in with such overwhelming cuts that the workers were not going to accept it. So they went out. They had a good sense of solidarity when they went out.

And also, this was very important, is the community got behind them. There was a solidarity committee which helped. Some of the unions in the city, particularly the teachers’ union and the union of professors at CUNY, the PSC, they were very helpful. So, a lot of solidarity on the picket line.

It also helped that the trains went overhead, you know, so the conductors from the subways, every time they would go by and they’d see the workers, they would beep the horns, and a lot of cars that went by beeped their horns. So they certainly felt that they were part of something larger. And I think that kept them going.

More practically, one of the things that helped was, two years before that, the New York state had passed a law that allowed strikers to collect unemployment benefits if replacement workers were hired, which they were in this case. So they had at least unemployment benefits and the strike benefits from the union, so they weren’t completely without financial resources.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the NRLB decision? Explain exactly what it was.

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Yeah, what it was is part of the problem in negotiations is the employer claimed they couldn’t afford to pay the wages that were in the contract. So the union has a right, under those circumstances, to get proof, and the union asked for proof of that, their financial situation. The employer refused to provide it in an adequate form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Refused to provide financial records?

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Yeah, financial records to show that they really needed the kinds of concessions they were asking for. They refused to provide it. Under the law, when they refuse to provide information, you can go to the National Labor Relations Board, and the labor board can require them to provide it. So what happened is when they didn’t provide it, we filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, and then that was processed into a trial, and that was the decision that came down last week

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to some of the workers. Democracy Now’s Jon Gerberg went out to the bakery and spoke with some of the bakery workers on their first day back to the job after the eleven-month strike.

    OSCAR HERNANDEZ: My name is Oscar Hernandez, and my position is electrician in the factory.

    MICHAEL FILIPPO: My name is Michael, last name is Filippo, and my job is lead maintenance mechanic on Stella D’Oro.

    SARA RODRIGUEZ: Hi. My name is Sara Rodriguez. I work for Stella D’Oro for eleven years. And my position at Stella D’Oro was a supervisor on the third shift in charge of the packing department.

    ALEX: My name is Alex. I’m a maintenance supervisor on the second shift, and I’ve been working here for thirty years.

    JUAN TORRES: My name is Juan Torres. I am a machine operator for sixteen years for Stella D’Oro.

    MICHAEL FILIPPO: They was asking us to give them a dollar an hour for the next five years, to give them about $1.50 for our benefits, all sick days, half of the holidays, our pension plan to give back to them, and the worst of all of them, to rewrite the contract. So that’s why we said no to them. And actually, before we said no, we asked them to show us the books, and they refused to show us the books.

    JUAN TORRES: A strike for eleven months means, you know, a lot of sacrifice to get here.

    SARA RODRIGUEZ: We were happy to be there, because we were showing everybody that this is our fight, this is the working-class fight, and we need to prove the company that we’re not going to give up that easy. They thought that we were going to be ready to go back when they sent us the two letters that they sent us, telling us if we don’t go back to work, they will hire the scabs as permanent workers, which we didn’t believe that. We thought — we always thought that we could win this fight.

    ALEX: I believe both the company and the union didn’t envision it to last that long. We thought there was going to be some kind of agreement, some kind of settlement, that was going to take place within at least the first month or so. But as the weeks turned into months and we were out here battling in the winter and in the cold and fighting the scabs coming across and maintaining our composure and fighting as a union and to keep our job and our rights, it began to get a little difficult as the months wore on.

    MICHAEL FILIPPO: Well, this fight, it not only affected me, it affected 135 people and 135 families, actually, because the company was refusing to negotiate in good faith with us, and they actually drive us out to strike. So we went on strike, and when you go on strike, you lose a lot of things. You lose your benefits. You lose your salary. You know, it’s a big struggle. So we went for eleven months. We stayed strong. Nobody crossed the line, not even a single person.

    ALEX: We had a court decision in the court, and the National Labor Board judge ruled in favor of us, and we were forced to come back to work and restore the place, and that’s what we’re trying to do now.

    JUAN TORRES: The court gave a good decision for us, very big decision. But right now, we are like in the limbo, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the thing. We don’t know what’s going to happen. That means, when we was on strike, our life, you know, depend on we going to win or not. But now, we win the decision; we won, but nothing changed. We got the same problem.

    ALEX: As rumor has it, the place is only going to be alive for another three months before they plan on closing, so — is the information we’ve gathered up to this point. So we’ve been out of work for eleven months. We’ve been out on the street for that time. And now we’re coming back, and we’re going to work three months and possibly have our jobs terminated by October.

    OSCAR HERNANDEZ: This was just a battle. The war is still going on, because we want the factory to stay in the Bronx, for this community, and we’re willing to do whatever we can do to keep it here, legally, to keep the business going in the Bronx. There’s a lot of families that depend on their salaries.

AMY GOODMAN: The workers at the Stella D’Oro factory in the Bronx. We wanted to have them in our firehouse studio, but they’ve just gone back to work. A special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Jon Gerberg and Hany Massoud. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we did contact the company, and they refused to come on, but representatives from Stella D’Oro and Brynwood Partners did provide this — issue this statement that read in part, quote, “The decision to close the Bronx [bakery] operations has not been made in haste or without significant planning. What the union leadership has failed to grasp is that any business that cannot operate profitably must seek changes that will enable it to do so...By refusing to compromise and insisting on maintaining a high labor cost structure, the union leadership has ensured that the jobs that they were trying to protect would eventually disappear from the Bronx.”

Louie Nikolaidis, your reaction to that statement, especially the issue of insisting on maintaining a high wage structure?

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Well, the wage structure is not high. The range is anywhere from about $18 to $22 an hour. So, anybody living in the City of New York who’s living on about $35,000 — maybe at the top end it’s $50,000 for the skilled trades people —- that’s not a lot of money. That’s not even a middle-class standard of living. You know, you’re not going to live with one income with that in the City of New York, so it’s not a high labor structure.

But the real issue is this is a private equity fund or a hedge fund. When they said they’re not profitable, they didn’t -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And they bought the company in 2006, right?

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So it was shortly after that, they started this effort, right?

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Yeah, the short history is it was a family-run company for many, many years, and then that got sold to corporate owners, first Nabisco, and then Nabisco got bought by Kraft. So Kraft was the owner that sold it to the private equity company.

So when they say it’s not profitable, they really don’t mean it’s not profitable. They mean, we don’t get the super rates of profit that we expect. These folks tell their investors that they’re going to return a 30 to 35 percent rate of return. That is an unreasonable rate of return for most companies. So, it is profitable, it’s just not as profitable as they would like.

JUAN GONZALEZ: When I was interviewing you a couple days ago for my column in the Daily News, you told me about the negotiation session where they came out and said why they needed to cut the wages. Could you talk about that?

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Oh, exactly. They started out from the get-go in negotiations and told us that they’re private equity. They’re not an operating company; they’re a financial investor. They’re only going to keep it for three to five years, and they’re going to turn it around. So their whole point was to reduce labor costs to the point where they could get another buyer to come in and have a contract that was gutted.

You know, some of it was financial, and some of it was issues of control, not just financial. Like one of the provisions in this contract, it’s an old kind of — if people know CIO, it’s an old industrial contract. We have a provision that says that the cookies will have union labels on them. So that was one of their proposals, to take off the union labels from the packaging. Now, that doesn’t save them any money. It’s just an issue of who’s controlling what.

AMY GOODMAN: And can the company just close it?

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: We say no. The company can go out of business. That’s a Supreme Court case called Darlington Mills back in the ’60s. You can’t keep companies in business if they don’t want to be in business. But, they’re not allowed to move production to avoid a union. That’s called a runaway shop, and that is illegal, and the union is pursuing that, and we will pursue that before the board. So, we believe that their closing the plant is in retaliation for the workers’ activity, and we will pursue that through the avenues.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your perspective is that if they don’t want to run the plant, they should sell it to somebody who will run it or perhaps the workers themselves?

LOUIE NIKOLAIDIS: Yeah, exactly. If they don’t want to run it, if they don’t want to get those super rates of return, they can find people that are willing to accept a reasonable rate of return, either a private owner, or if — you know, it would be great if you could get funding that would allow some kind of a cooperative or an ESOP, employee stock ownership situation. But we realize that’s a difficult row to hoe, but we’re exploring all of those avenues.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a quick thing. Juan, the significance of Al Franken now? He comes in as the sixtieth senator and makes the Democrats filibuster-proof. Not clear exactly what that means right now, as Democrats join with the Republicans on a number of issues. But his first act is to endorse, is to co-sponsor EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I think that’s definitely a signal on Franken’s part that — to all of those people who tried to keep him out of office for so long, that he is going to be one of the progressive or liberal — on the liberal end of the Democratic Party. And by signing onto EFCA immediately as his first act, he’s definitely sending a signal: you’re going to have a tough time with this particular senator from Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Louie Nikolaidis, I want to thank you for being with us, an attorney with the workers’ union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Union. We will continue to follow the story of the Stella D’Oro workers.

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