On Saturday May 30th, striking Stella D’Oro workers and approximately 800 supporters rallied in the Bronx, New York to speak out, not only in support of their striking workers, but for all workers taking a hit in today’s economy. Their goal: to start a new workers’ movement and set a precedent for fighting back. The question, two and a half weeks later, is whether or not that movement is taking hold.
“This started out as a struggle for Stella D’Oro, but it’s a struggle for all working people,” Joyce Alston, President of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, Local 50 said in a speech at the May 30th rally.
“If it happens to workers at Stella D’Oro, it can happen to anybody,” announced Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, member of the Stella D’Oro Strike Support Committee and New York State Nurses Association.
What happened to the Stella D’Oro workers is the 21st Century epilogue to the American Dream. Stella D’Oro, a family owned company since the 1930s, was sold to Nabisco in 1992. Kraft Foods took over Nabisco in 2000 and by 2006 sold Stella D’Oro to a Greenwich, CT private equity firm, Brynwood Partners. The Harvard MBAs who managed Brynwood Partners decided to turn what they considered an undervalued company into a more profitable investment by demanding that workers accept a 25% pay cut and an elimination of sick days, overtime, pension, and one week vacation. Management also insisted that workers increase their contributions to health insurance by 20%, even though they’d be earning less.
For the Stella D’Oro workers and their supporters, this was an unjust outrage. After attempts to negotiate, the workers decided to strike on August 13, 2008, and subsequently Brywood Partners hired replacements. The striking workers have been out of work for 10 months.
Marta Marcias, who has worked for Stella D’Oro for 26 years as a packer and machine operator said at the rally that it was the workers who built up Stella D’Oro. Remembering the days when she started in her 20s, she said, “It was a small factory, and we’re the ones that built it up.”
For Barbara Bowen, President of Professional Staff Congress of CUNY (PSC), Brynwood Partners are attempting to break a community.
“They are about impoverishing a community. Brynwood Partners is about making people poor. The workers, the families that depend on their income, the children they want to send to college, the hopes and dreams they have — Brynwood Partners is about destroying that. The community needs to fight back. This is an attack on the whole community and it’s an attack on all working people… It’s a deliberate attack to make people poor and we won’t take it. We won’t stand for that. What do we say to that? No!”
In addition to saying no to Brynwood Partners, supporters of the Stella D’Oro workers have organized a support committee, which has declared a boycott of Stella D’Oro cookies.
Lee Cutler, Treasurer of New York State United Teachers Union (NYSUT), spoke at the rally and offered NYSUT’s support of the Stella D’Oro strikers.
“It is an honor to be here representing 600,000 teachers, bus drivers, school secretaries, health professionals, college professors, and life guards. They will not be eating Stella D’Oro cookies throughout the state… We know and appreciate what the struggle is about. We recognize your courage and we know what’s at stake here. To the 132 of you brave souls who have not crossed the picket line since August 13th, we are with you!”
Shelia Goldberg, a retired teacher, demonstrated that support by attending four union meetings during the last two weeks in May and collecting $2,009 in donations to help the striking Stella D’Oro workers.
“We, teachers, know what it’s like to be on strike,” Goldberg announced at the rally, “and we support you… We really need to remember that during the last century… it was the unions that were responsible for increasing and building the middle class and we have to keep the middle class people from being knocked down to a poorer standard of living.”
Teachers from Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk counties, and New Jersey traveled to the Bronx to support the Stella D’Oro workers. A group of high school students gave up their Saturday afternoon to participate and enthusiastically wave handmade signs emblazoned with messages: “Workers are Under Attack, Fight Back!” “Make the Bosses Take the Losses!”
William Arnone, a Long Island accountant who works for a firm in New York City said that he traveled to the Bronx in honor of his father. “I am here for my father. He worked for Stella D’Oro for 35 years when it was a family. He has a pension that he was told may be at risk under this new management, so he asked me to come here in support of the workers.”
After the speeches, the 800 demonstrators marched from Target at 225th Street and Broadway to the Stella D’Oro factory, making a brief stop in front of a Stop ‘N Shop where they chanted “Boycott Stella D’Oro! Boycott Stella D’Oro.” Curious shoppers gathered in front of the store and in the parking lot to watch the parade of workers. When the demonstrators continued their walk to the Stella D’Oro factory, they began new chants: “No Contract, No Cookies!” and “When they say cutbacks, we say fight back!”
When explaining the purpose of rally, Alston, president of Local 50, said, “Only the people can stop what’s going on in the U.S.A. This is supposed to be the land of opportunity that if you come and work hard you have the right to expect that you’ll have a decent life. Well, that’s been removed and it’s time for the labor movement to stand up!”
Bowen, of PSC, added in her speech, “This strike is not just about fighting back in one place, it’s about building a movement that will change things.”
Edwin Chunga Molina of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 3, and member of the Stella D’Oro Strike Support Committee has been working hard to support the Stella D’Oro workers and to spread the message of the new workers’ movement. He said that while the government and corporations keep saying that we all need to make sacrifices, so far the only people making sacrifices are the workers.
He meets with the Stella D’Oro Strike Support Committee, every Wednesday evening at 260 West 231st Street at the Church of the Mediator in the Bronx, NY. According to Molina, the Support Committee organized the boycott of Stella D’Oro products and now plans a secondary boycott of retail stores that sell Stella D’Oro products. The committee has over 90 people who go out to leaflet different supermarkets to spread the word of the boycott and make shoppers aware of the Stella D’Oro workers’ situation.
This week, Molina said, the Support Committee will meet with the Teamsters Union to discuss the possibility the the Teamsters joining the Stella D’Oro boycott. The Support Committee will also meet with the Central Labor Council to discuss how to expand news of the boycott and how to provide financial support for the strikers. The Support Committee hopes that the Central Labor Council will advertise the boycott on television and in union newspapers, as well as contribute to the strike fund.
Molina said that since the May 30th rally, another Stella D’Oro Strike Support Committee was created in New Jersey. He said that there are also Stella D’Oro Strike Support Committees in Guatamala, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.
Stella D’Oro has a game plan of its own. On May 29th, the day before the rally, the cookie maker started offering a free movie ticket to any customer who purchases three Stella D’Oro products at King Kullen stores.
Molina is optimistic, despite the current economic outlook. “In 1929, the workers united and were able, despite the economic crisis, to achieve unemployment insurance and social security,” he said.
Well, it appears that the workers are uniting. Mike Dolber, President of the Bellmore-Merrick United Secondary Teachers, distributed over 400 flyers to the members of his union on Monday, June 8th, asking them to support the Stella D’Oro boycott.
A union carpenter, when asked at the Yankee game, on Saturday, June 13th, if he knew about the Stella D’Oro boycott replied, “Oh, Yeah!” and quickly told his friend sitting next to him not to buy Stella D’Oro either.
“The members of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association stand in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters in the labor movement,” said Beth Ziff-Dimino, President of the union. When asked if her union was supporting the boycott, she replied, ” Yes, and we are 325 strong!”
So the movement appears to be taking hold, but the verdict is still out on its success. According to Molina, “These men and women of Stella D’Oro need the support of every single working family, friend, and supporter. The next few months could win the strike, but it could also break every union that we have.”
Beth Borzone is a twelve year veteran educator and a budding freelance writer. She blogs at Huffington Post, where this report originally appeared. Talking Union thanks her for permission to publish it here.