Lessons from an inspiring fight

Mariano Silva looks at the impact of the heroic but unsuccessful battle waged by Stella D'oro workers to defend their pay, benefits and jobs.

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

THE STRUGGLE of workers at the Stella D'oro factory in the Bronx, the most important labor fight in New York City over the last 14 months, has seemingly come to a sad end.

The new owners of the cookie company, Lance, Inc., closed the Bronx factory in early October and shipped the equipment to a non-union plant in Ohio, leaving 136 workers out of a job and depriving the Bronx of yet another source of stable union jobs.

Lance's decision to shut the plant came this summer, after the Stella workers--members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50--won an 11-month strike against the plant's previous owners with a favorable decision from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The plant's owner at the time--the private equity firm Brynwood Partners--was forced to reinstate strikers and provide back pay for its violations of federal law. However, after the NLRB ruling, Brynwood announced it would either close the plant or seek to sell it. In early September, both threats came true when Lance, Inc., bought the company and immediately announced that the Bronx plant would be closed.

The NLRB's finding of illegal conduct by Brynwood arose from management's distortions about alleged "massive financial losses" at the factory. Brynwood claimed, while refusing to provide proof, that the company had lost $1.5 million in profits and more than $5 million in sales, and used these claims to demand concessions.

Brynwood's contract offer was an insult: a pay cut of up to 25 percent; the elimination of vacation, holiday and sick days, the freezing of pensions and increased contributions to health care coverage. Management's stonewalling at the bargaining table and its attempt to unilaterally cut wages and benefits led to the 11-month strike.

The strike provided New York with a spectacular example of working class and community solidarity as it stretched on through last winter and spring.

None of the 136 workers crossed the picket line, and a community-based strike support committee organized a consistent outpouring of support and continuous mobilizations. A core group of Stella D'oro workers led the way in opposing any concessions and opening they way to building a broad-based support campaign. Their efforts should be a lesson for the broader labor movement.

Yet despite verbal recognition by many labor and political leaders of the importance of the struggle to the city's union movement, the broader layers of organized labor didn't come to the defense of Stella workers. While the core group of workers and supporters deserve immense credit for their militancy and commitment over many months, the final mobilizations for Stella workers saw fewer and fewer people turning out, whether at the plant or City Hall.

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A KEY factor in building support for Stella workers was the relative roles of the strike support committee and Local 50.

The committee took advantage of growing discontent spurred by the economic crisis and upcoming local elections to hold meetings throughout the city, building a broad base of support for the union. All of the major newspapers, including the notorious anti-labor rag, the New York Post, had generally favorable coverage of the struggle. Actions included solidarity pickets in Queens and Manhattan as well as a boycott campaign.

But most of this work was carried out by a group of militants from the factory and the support committee. The unions in New York City could and should have made the struggle at Stella a rallying point in the fight to save jobs amid a terrible economic crisis.

There were debates among Stella workers about how to step up the struggle. Members of the United Electrical Workers union (UE) came and held workshops, trying to spread the lessons of the successful Republic Windows & Doors strike and occupation in Chicago last year, where workers forced Bank of America to fund severance packages for laid-off workers. But Local 50, a small and under-funded union local, decided not to take such steps.

As a result, after the announcement of the plant's closure, there was increasing concern among Stella workers about how to cut their losses and at least ensure that severance payments would be forthcoming were the plant to close. Many of the workers were close to retirement, or single mothers with family constraints, and others were undocumented.

In the absence of a broader base of support and a consensus on what it would take to win, many of these legitimate concerns came to the fore. As one worker said at an October 16 rally, "It wasn't clear yet what they're paying. People don't want to break the law yet. They're not denying us our pay."

However, the decision not to occupy the plant and to seek severance payments shouldn't be seen as a shortcoming of Local 50 members. They set an inspiring example with their long and 100-percent solid strike for nearly a year. The real failings in this struggle were on the part of the broader labor movement, which never turned its rhetoric of support into the kind of pressure that could have made a difference.

Efforts to get the plant reopened are continuing. At a demonstration on October 16, Local 50 President Joyce Alston declared, "We want Brynwood Partners to know that we're not stopping. This is going to continue. In over 30 years of negotiating contracts, these people are the most arrogant, egotistical people I've ever dealt with."

A key issue is whether Brynwood will make good on pension and health care benefits that are due to workers beyond the cash payouts it has offered.

In line with this call for ongoing struggle, further rallies have been called, including one targeting Goldman Sachs for receiving a bailout and failing to help workers. There have also been threats of legal action based on the tax breaks that were given to Stella D'oro by the city of New York--which has done nothing to pressure Brynwood or Lance to keep the plant open.

Whether these late-game tactics can bring back the plant is a big question. Lance, Inc. has already walked away with tens of millions in profits, the plant equipment and the union jobs of 136 hard-working and committed working-class fighters.

The labor movement in New York and across the U.S. should draw the right lessons from this fight--that in this economic crisis, struggle and solidarity are more important than ever for workers to win.