October 09, 2009

Stella D'oro workers exit with heads held high as Brynwood orders factory closed a day early

Source: By John Tarleton

Stella D'oro closed its Bronx bakery a day ahead of schedule Thursday, officially putting its 136 unionized employees out of work.

The plant's general manager, Dan Meyers, summoned the workers for a 3 p.m. meeting as the first shift was ending, informed them that the plant was closing and told them they should take any personal possessions before leaving. They responded by singing and chanting "the workers united will never be defeated" in their boss's face for 10 minutes before exiting the factory, which has operated in the Bronx since 1932.

"We told him we were still united and we didn't regret what we did," said Gurdip Mann, a machinist who worked at the factory for 21 years.

The closing of the factory follows a bitter labor struggle between the workers and Brynwood Partners, a Connecticut-based private equity firm that bought Stella D'oro in 2006. The workers, who belong to BCTGWM Local 50, went on strike in August 2008 after management demanded steep wage and benefit cuts. They returned to their jobs producing cookies and breadsticks in July only to learn the company was being sold and moved to Ohio.

The workers, some still wearing their hairnets, were greeted by cheers from a small crowd of supporters as they trickled out of the factory. About 40 workers lingered outside the factory gates, not quite ready to let go of decades of their lives and the close web of friendships they had built working side-by-side at Stella.

"We know this product is not going to survive without us," said George Kahssay, a 24-year Stella D'oro veteran. "We can find another job but they won't find people like us anywhere. We stick together like a family."

Kahssay said he had no regrets about going on strike and battling Brynwood until the end.

"We showed we cannot be humiliated by them," he said "We are not slaves."

Asset Stripping

Brynwood purchased Stella D'oro for $17 million and looked to flip it for a large profit after breaking the union, according to union attorney Louis Nikolaidis. When that failed, they sold the company to snackfood giant Lance
which will move production to a non-union shop in Ashland, Ohio.

Local 50 President Joyce Alston said four prospective buyers contacted the union, expressing interest in purchasing Stella and keeping it in the Bronx but were rebuffed by Brynwood.

Revelations that the city granted Brynwood $425,000 in tax abatements in order to retool the factory with new machinery that will now be shipped to Ohio have fueled additional outrage over the Stella closing.

"It's asset stripping," said Tony O'Brien, a retired Queens College professor who has been active in the Stella D'oro Solidarity Committee, which has worked to mobilize community support for the workers. "They take the
name and the machines somewhere else and leave the workers behind. No wonder the country is in decline."

"We have to do whatever we can to keep these machines here in the factory," said Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who also spoke in support of the Stella workers earlier in the afternoon at a news conference on the steps
of City Hall that included Queens City Councilman Tony Avella and the leaders of about a half-dozen union locals including the PSC's Barbara Bowen.

According to Gurdip Mann, the Stella D'oro workers considered trying to occupy the factory but nixed the idea when only a minority expressed support for doing so.

Workers who engage in such an action risk losing their severance pay which equals just under a week's pay for each year worked at Stella.

However, the Stella workers may have a long struggle ahead of them to receive all of the benefits they are entitled to under their contract.

According to Alston, Brynwood will pay the severance money but denies that it has to contribute to the workers' pension and health care funds for the additional time covered by the severance pay.

"This is isn't a misunderstanding. The contract language is very clear about this," said Local President Joyce Alston, who arrived about an hour after the factory closed.

Gathering the newly laid-off workers around her, Alston urged them not to cash any severance checks they receive from Brynwood without consulting the union.

"They are trying to frustrate everybody and drag this out in the courts," she said. "They are thinking you will be happy to get a lump sum of money."

Another rally outside the Stella D'oro factory is scheduled for today (Friday) from 3-7 p.m.