Standing together at Stella

Hannah Wolfe reports from the latest demonstration by strikers and their supporters at the Stella D'oro cookie factory.

Some 200 Stella D'oro strikers and their supporters on the march in the Bronx (Brian Jones | SW)Some 200 Stella D'oro strikers and their supporters on the march in the Bronx (Brian Jones | SW)

NEW YORK--The chant "We Are Stella!" was belted out by striking Stella D'oro workers, along with their supporters and other unionists, as they marched 200-strong down Broadway in the Bronx on a bright but sub-freezing day on January 31.

The march traced a path from the picket line outside the Stella D'oro factory to a nearby Target store that continues to sell the scab cookies, where Joyce Alston, president of the union local that represents the strikers, elaborated on the meaning of the chant. "We can't sit by and allow people to be destroyed," Alston said. "We are the market. We produce the product."

A spirited and militant atmosphere prevailed on the march, with strikers joined by contingents from the community who turned out to show their support, plus a small musical troupe of children, as young as three, who beat on drums and shook maracas.

The 135 workers, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTWGM) International Union Local 50, have been on strike for over five months. Management has brought scabs in to keep the factory running, though production is reportedly at just 35 percent capacity.

Stella D'oro was recently taken over by the wealthy buyout firm Brynwood, which wants to effectively "Wal-Martize" what was once one of the best employers in the Bronx. The contract proposal that workers rejected would have slashed wages by up to 25 percent, imposed premiums on health insurance, frozen pensions and eliminated holidays, vacations and sick pay.

What you can do

Check out the Stella D'Oro Strike 2008 Web site for updates and more information on the struggle. To find you how you can help, e-mail the Committee in Support of the Stella D'Oro Strikers at vze2jmhr@verizon.net.

As the months go on, with many days on the picket line when the temperature never gets above freezing, community solidarity is becoming even more important for the morale of strikers.

As their flyers proclaim, BCTWGM members "are taking a stand opposing greed and supporting justice and the living standards of working Americans...Because 53 percent of Stella D'oro workers are women and 75 percent are in the job categories facing wage cuts up to 25 percent, Brynwood's demands represent a DIRECT ATTACK on the LIVING STANDARDS of WOMEN WORKERS and their families!"

Brynwood Partners is notorious for taking over companies, making them more profitable by union-busting and slashing wages and benefits, and then selling them at a profit. The Stella workers say they have negotiated in bad faith and are planning on forcing them out of their jobs.

Unions with contingents marching in solidarity included the United Federation of Teachers; New York State Nurses Association; Professional Staff Congress (the union for City University of New York faculty and staff); AFSCME retirees; the 1199 health care workers union; Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Retail, Wholesale, and Department Stores Union; and United Food and Commercial Workers.

In a striking show of national solidarity, workers from the recently victorious Republic factory occupation in Chicago, in the area on a speaking tour, heard about the Stella strike and joined in the march, inspiring the crowd with their words and presence.

Ricky Maclin, vice president of the United Electrical Workers local that represented the Republic workers, wore a button that read "Trabajos con Justicia." "We have to let our brothers and sisters know that we are ONE," Maclin said. "We are the work FORCE."

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AMONG THE strikers are many people whose stories illustrate the full impact of the recession. For example, Jose came to New York from the Dominican Republic 12 years ago, and got a job as a Stella D'oro baking machine operator. Before the strike, he was making $19 an hour with full benefits. His wife worked at the local Target. They were able to live and support their two children comfortably.

Last year, though, his wife was one of 7,000 Target workers laid off nationwide; she hasn't been able to find work since. Their family is now surviving on the $365-a-week unemployment check Jose collects--that doesn't cover even the most basic expenses. The family has no health insurance; Jose's younger child suffers from asthma (as do many children in the heavily polluted Bronx), and currently gets no treatment other than as-needed emergency room visits.

But Jose is thankful for the community support the strikers have gotten, and he is hopeful that their jobs will be reinstated.

At the rally, Carlos Sedeno, a student at a local public high school, got up to present the strikers with money that he and his fellow students collected. "We support you--the parents, teachers and students all support you," he said. "Our world is in a crisis, with a declining standard of living. We hope you get your jobs and benefits back."

Charles Jenkins, an MTA electronics specialist in the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and vice president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, talked about the TWU strike three years ago, which shut the city down. "In small factories like Stella, the management think they can get away with whatever they want," Jenkins said. "That's why all labor needs to be out here to support them."

One reason for hope for the Stella D'oro strikers is just a short walk up the hill from the factory. Kingsbridge Nursing Home workers, represented by SEIU 1199, struck last year for eight months before winning their demands. They had been working without a contract or health care because the owner of the home stopped paying into their benefits, one of many ways she managed to make record profits.

Stella workers are no strangers to labor battles. In 2003, Kraft, which then owned Stella, tried to merge cookie delivery routes with existing Nabisco routes in an attempt to eliminate union drivers. Sixty-five drivers from Teamsters Local 550 walked off the job; more than 500 bakery and other union workers at Stella and other Kraft Nabisco plants honored the strike.

The National Labor Relations Board is considering an appeal that would prohibit management from hiring "permanent replacement workers." Strikers and their supporters are continuing to meet on a weekly basis to discuss ways to increase the pressure on Brynwood--among the proposals are more rallies, a product boycott, getting more unions to endorse the strike, and planning direct actions.

Stella workers need our support. Every victory for labor will build confidence, strength and organizational experience for the larger strikes and struggles ahead.