Bronx Cookie Workers Fight Buyout: North Carolina Based Snack Food Giant Eyes Stella D’oro

Sarah Secunda Jul 23, 2009

STEPPING UP: Longtime Stella D’oro Biscuit Co. worker Eddie Marrero (left) challenges New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson, Jr. (right) to keep his promise to help the workers during a press conference in the Bronx July 13. PHOTO: JOEL COOK

Striking Stella D’oro Biscuit Co. workers ended their 11-month strike July 7 after winning a sweeping judgment from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that their employer, Brynwood Partners, had engaged in unlawful labor practices. However, the Bronx bakery workers now find themselves racing to save their jobs after the private equity firm, based in Greenwich, Conn., announced that it would close the factory by October.

While Brynwood’s ultimate course of action remains uncertain, the Stella workers and their supporters are focusing on snack food giant Lance Inc., based in Charlotte, N.C.

Mike Filippou, a shop steward with the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) International Union Local 50, which represents the Stella D’oro workers, says the union has learned that Brynwood is in negotiations to sell the Stella D’oro brand, but not the factory, to Lance.

Lance, which has a non-union workforce of 5,000, posted sales of $825.5 million for 2008 and has a market value of $769 million as of July 14. (Lance did not respond to The Indypendent’s request for comment.) Filippou says that Local 50 has received offers from buyers who would keep the cookie plant and its 136 jobs in the Bronx, but that Brynwood Partners has refused to consider these offers.

The Stella workers and their supporters are now channeling their efforts into building the political and community support they believe is going to be necessary to force the company’s hand. The workers’ battle with Brynwood began in August 2008 when they went on strike after the private equity firm demanded that they accept pay cuts of as much as 26 percent, as well as reductions in holidays, sick days and health coverage.

On July 22, 45 community members and labor activists, including 20 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, rallied in the Financial District outside the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, one of Lance’s largest shareholders.

“There’s no doubt Lance will move production if they buy that brand,” said Micah Landau of the Stella Workers Solidarity Committee. “Lance might get cold feet if they see people going to their investors.”

The workers and their supporters plan to stage future protests at the headquarters of other top Lance shareholders based in New York City, such as Barclays.

The Stella D’oro dispute has also begun to attract the support of high-profile politicians, including City Comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson, Jr., who jumped on board July 13 with a press conference outside the factory gates at Broadway and 237th Street.

Calling Brynwood’s behavior “disgraceful,” the mayoral candidate promised to “squeeze the company” by pressuring public pension funds invested in Brynwood to divest.

Among known Brynwood investors is the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS), one of the nation’s largest public employee pension funds, with more than 200,000 members and $26.2 billion in assets. According to a 2008 year-end report, SERS has more than $9.9 million invested in Brynwood and has committed another $10 million to the fund.

The Stella Workers Solidarity Committee, a coalition of Stella workers and their supporters, is spearheading a slew of other initiatives, from an outreach campaign to New York City unionists to arranging a hearing before the City Council. They are also planning a pressure campaign against 14 public employee pension funds that are invested in Lance.

“They [Lance] are not used to this,” said Steve Kindred of the Solidarity Committee. “It’s going to be a shock to them.”

Meanwhile, Local 50 has filed charges with the NLRB, alleging that Brynwood is closing the plant in order to dodge the union.

“The company’s decision to close came immediately after they got an unfavorable decision,” notes Louie Nikolaidis, the lawyer for Local 50’s lawyer. “We’re saying that’s a retaliation for the protective concerted activities of the workers.”

The union has also filed a request with the NLRB seeking 10(j) injunctive relief, which would force Brynwood to keep the factory open while the board investigates the union’s charge.

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