By Connor Boals
The day after losing their jobs when the factory closed, about 50 former employees of the Stella D’Oro cookie manufacturer in the northwest Bronx were back at work, not yet ready to end the labor battle that they have been waging for over a year.
A crowd of about 75 former employees, local politicians, union leaders and community supporters congregated inside a ring of police barricades on the eastern sidewalk at the factory’s entrance on the corner of 237th Street and Broadway Avenue on October 9. The tears of yesterday were replaced by determination to hold onto a Bronx icon that began here 77 years ago.
“Right now I would say I’m too old to go look for a job,” said Emlia Dursu, 58, a former table packer who placed the cookies into their packaging. She began working at the factory in 1979. “ I’m going to wait and live on the little bit that I have and depend on my children to survive.”
Some protestors stuck to the perimeters, leaning lazily against the barriers and making small talk with fellow strikers. Others marched in a slow circle, chanting and holding handmade signs scrawled with slogans of protest. They spoke disparagingly about the factory’s former owner, Connecticut-based private equity firm Brynwood Partners that sold Stella D’Oro to North Carolina-based snack manufacturer Lance, Inc., known for its assortment sandwich crackers and cookies, potato chips, nuts and candy.
“We’re still going to stay strong,” said Mike Filipou, who worked as a lead mechanic for over 14 years and is orchestrating much of the rally efforts on the behalf of the workers. “We’re still going to fight Brynwood and Lance because they are union busters.”
Lance and Brynwood Partners did not answer multiple calls made over the two weeks following the plant’s closing.
Filipou and the rest of the former workers at the factory in the Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx are members of the Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. There were more than 130 people who lost their jobs, most likely for good, on Thursday.
“There’s no jobs around here anymore,” said Filipou who worked at another Bronx fossil, Farberware, which was bought up and moved from the South Bronx in 1996. “We’re going to have to move out of the Bronx, there’s no jobs anymore, no manufacturers.”
The union-busting accusation stems from a long labor battle with Brynwood Partners that purchased the brand from Kraft Foods, Inc. in 2006 for $17.5 million. In August of 2008, the workers went on strike because of concessions that Brynwood brought to the negotiating table. Among the negotiations, were a lowering of wages and higher premiums for the workers’ health insurance. The strikers picketed for months and eventually Brynwood conceded last June after a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled they had negotiated in bad faith. But the battle was far from over.
“We started more than a year ago with negotiations and we went on strike,” Filipou said. “The judge forced them to take us back and as soon as they took us back, they announced they were going to close the place.”
Lance, Inc. announced its interest in the brand in June 2009. With the purchase of the brand this week, Lance is planning to move the machinery and the brand–but not the workers–to a nonunion factory in Ashland, Ohio.
Many at the rally spoke of the repercussions that will reach beyond the employees and into the rest of the Bronx.
“The Stella D’Oro factory bakery has been here 75 years it’s the backbone of this community,” said Bill Talen, known as “Reverend Billy,” a bouffant-adorned activist costumed as a revivalist preacher who ran as the Green Party candidate in this year’s mayoral election. ”It’s a very sad day, especially because we would think that we would know better by now because of the economic downturn that was caused by this kind of attitude toward human labor.”
Talen pledged support to the freshly unemployed by providing publicity and holding fundraisers for them.
“As we say when we are out here on the sidewalks, ‘we are all Stella! Stellallujah!’” he said.
Walking alongside Talen in the circle was Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist and 2010 Democratic Party candidate for U.S. Senate. He said that Stella D’Oro was an example of corporate recklessness that has plagued the U.S. for over 30 years.
“When a plant shuts down that’s been the lifeblood of the community, it affects the entire community, it affects every single person that lives in the community,” Tasini said. “Businesses have to make a profit but we also have to value the community and value the workers that make this company work.”
Dursu said that the workers “were like family” at Stella D’Oro and remembered the compassionate approach the original owners brought to the negotiating table in the past. The current owners, she said, lack the compassion that she once expected from the company.
“Brynwood partners don’t care about their workers,” she said. “It makes me feel very angry that they can be human beings and not care about other human beings.”
In a last-ditch effort, the workers and local politicians tried to pressure the city’s finance department to put a restraining order on the removal of the equipment to the Ohio factory because the equipment was purchased with hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax abatements from the city.
The department has already said there is no provision regarding this type of situation in its abatement program and will not attempt to pursue holding onto the equipment.
As the future of the Stella D’Oro workers looks more hopeless, Filipou said they will do what they have been doing for so long: continue to fight.
“We have a lot support from a lot of unions and a lot of politicians and we still hope something is going to happen,” Filipou said. “Stella D’oro is like a landmark in the Bronx.”