Posted on 15 December 2009.
Eddie Marrero and Evelyn Rivera still keep a package of union-made Stella D'Oro breadsticks. They say they'll never buy Stella products again. Photo by Connor Boals
The main strip of Broadway running through the neighborhood of Kingsbridge in the Northwest Bronx looks the same since the Stella D’Oro cookie factory closed its doors for good in October.
There is only one difference: the unmistakable scent of baked goods in the oven.
“I used to get that aroma here,” said Eddie Marrero, a 30-year veteran of the plant, who lives blocks away in an apartment on Bailey Avenue. “When I’d go out on my terrace, I could tell what they were baking.”
On October 8, 2009, the employees of Stella D’Oro went to work for the last time. About 140 employees, including Marrero, lost their jobs when the 78-year-old plant closed down for good. The closing came in the wake of a protracted dispute between the unionized workers and the current ownership that led to a lengthy labor strike. It left many workers–who felt like Stella D’Oro was family–unmoored in the weeks before the holiday season.
Marrero, 50, said he started with Stella as a production packer in 1979. By the time the factory closed, he was a foreman baker who oversaw the ovens, the production lines and checked for quality control.
“It’s not like a chocolate chip cookie,” Marrero said of the challenge of baking quality Stella D’Oro treats. “One day the breakfast treats can come out looking like crap.”
Marrero’s live-in girlfriend Evelyn Rivera, got a job as a table packer two years ago, after she was laid off from her position as a clerk on Wall Street.
Rivera began by working the overnight shift, packing snacks into trays alongside five to 10 other women from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“I was used to paper work,” she said of the aches that came with manual labor. She pulled her finger back as if squeezing a gun to demonstrate how the muscles in her hand would freeze up from the “trigger finger” she developed packing up to 10,000 cookies a day.
“It’s an art,” she said, “It’s not like “I Love Lucy” when they got jobs at the candy factory.”
Marrero said that a Stella D’Oro job was one of the best jobs to be had in the Bronx.
“Nobody is going to find a job like Stella D’Oro,” he said. “It was the only job in the Bronx that started you off at $14 an hour.”
Marrero said he was making $21 and hour when the factory closed, coming out around $65,000 a year. Rivera, who began at $14 an hour, was on her second raise, making $16 an hour.
About 75 former employees, community members and labor activists protested outside the factory on October 9, 2009 after the factory was closed the day before. Video by Connor Boals
Now, Marrero is “semi-retired,” still waiting for $7,000 owed to him from a National Labor Relations Board ruling against Brynwood Partners, the company that purchased Stella D’Oro two-and-a-half years ago. His son, Eddie is 23 and attends John Jay College where he studies criminal justice. Marrero covered his tuition until this year, now his son is taking care of his education through loans.
Rivera’s daughter, Rosa, is 19 and a senior at John F. Kennedy High School. Come January, both mother and daughter will be students when Rivera goes back to school to get study medical coding in pursuit of a job in a medical billing department.
For nearly 80 years the Stella D’Oro Cookie factory churned out its trademark cookies, breadsticks and pastries that are distributed nationwide.
The bakery’s iconic treats trace their heritage to Joseph Kresevich, who emigrated to the United States from Trieste, Italy in 1922. Ten years later, he and his wife Angela established Stella D’Oro, Italian for “gold star,” in a small shop on Bailey Avenue in Kingsbridge.
Although Stella D’Oro’s cookies were based on the Italian pastries that Kresevich remembered from his homeland, they quickly became cross-cultural snacks.
The Stella D'Oro factory at the corner of 237th Street and Broadway has been empty since the brand was purchased by Lance, Inc. and moved to an Ohio factory
The factory’s neighborhood was largely filled with Jewish families, and the fact that the pastries were often made without eggs or butter meant that they were suitable for kosher customers. A particular favorite was the company’s Swiss Fudge cookies, which many Jewish consumers dubbed “shtreimels,” after the round fur hats that are traditionally worn on the Sabbath by Hasidic Jews.
In 1992, Stella D’Oro was purchased by Nabisco, which subsequently became part of Kraft foods. In 2003, Kraft began experimenting with cheaper ingredients, ultimately dropping the “pareve” kosher designation from its label. This led to an immediate uproar among the Jewish consumers who formed the bulk of the company’s customer base. Kraft quickly changed back to the original recipe and re-instituted its kosher certification.
In 2006, Kraft sold Stella D’Oro to a private equity firm, Brynwood Partners for $17.5 million, a significant reduction compared to the $100 million price tag Kraft paid for the brand. Soon thereafter, Brynwood attempted to cut employee health and retirement benefits and proposed ending pensions in exchange for establishing 401(k)s.
“A 401(k) can go in a blast,” Marrero said. “That ain’t no pension. If I live up to 100, I’m going to be getting that.”
Marrero said that the pension plan he is on was a “golden eighties” plan which a worker qualified for after 15 or twenty years of service and then it paid out double the amount for every year worked.
On August 13, 2008, 135 employees, all members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50 went on strike because of the demands the new owners had brought to the table. The Local 50 is a small union, with membership around 1,000 workers, so the a support group, the Stella D’Oro Solidarity Committee, consisting of community members, labor activists and union members
According to the committee, Brynwood’s wanted to slash wages as much as 25 percent, impose “crushing” premiums to the health insurance plan, eliminate holidays, vacation and sick pay and do away with extra pay for working Saturdays.
Marrero said the message he was hearing from Brynwood was that they didn’t have the money to pay for these things anymore. This confused Marrero because he never saw any cutbacks on production.
“As soon as we were baking them, they were going into the trucks.” He said. “There was always work, we could work as long as we wanted.”
Marrero said he would often work 40 hours a week, plus 11-12 hours in overtime where he was paid time-and-a-half.
The union, which had represented the workers since the early 1960s, rejected the new company’s demands and began picketing. Brynwood immediately replaced them with backup workers that they had already gathered.
Every day when the replacement workers emerged from the factory for a shift change, they were met with angry heckling.
“Scabs!” the crowd roared.
“I was going to get into a fight with a few of them,” Rivera said.
This was Rivera’s first strike. Marrero had previously been through four during his tenure at Stella D’Oro.
“I learned so much from it,” she said. “I never thought I would go on strike.”
Rivera said that she is thankful to have been on strike. It was a pivotal experience, where she gained knowledge and friendship.
“When I was out there in the strike, I got to know everybody. We got to know each other much better. It was a friendly atmosphere.” She said.
“The strikers figured it would be two weeks,” said Micah Landau, a community supporter and graduate student at CUNY. “Then it started getting cold and it went from August 13 to October 13.”
Landau said that Brynwood Partners intentionally created unreasonable demands to bust the union.
“These guys, they provoke the strike, and its because they weren’t interested in negotiating,” he said. “It was like a siege. They were trying to starve people out.”
The plight of the workers attracted the attention of many in the world of New York City politics and activism. Marrero said that nearly every New York City politician came out and show support at one time or another, all except for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“You have all these politicians but you only have one emperor,” he said of Bloomberg. “He’s still ignoring us.”
The tiny factory sparked a reaction from labor groups across New York, the country and even beyond the borders of the United States. On the day the factory closed, US Senate candidate Jonathan Tasini, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Billy Talen all marched with about 50 former employees outside the factory on the day it was finally closed
Talen, better know as “Reverend Billy” is a bouffant-adorned performance activist who runs the Church of Life after Shopping, a performance group dedicated to fighting the evils of capitalism. Reverend Billy performs “exorcisms,” preaches revival-style sermons and pops up on cable news with color commentary any time that capitalism is under examination. The Reverend, who was also the Green Party candidate for New York City mayor, dedicated his latest sermon to the plight of the Stella D’Oro workers.
“The Stella D’Oro factory bakery was the backbone of this community,” Talen said. “It’s very sad.”
Talen wasn’t the only anti-capitalist rabble-rouser to come to the aid of the workers. In September, the union workers asked Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, to purchase the factory and fund a Kingsbridge worker’s cooperative through Venezuela’s own oil and gas supplier, CITGO. Chavez took them seriously.
Chavez, who was in New York City for the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, told the UN, “One of [the workers] said to me, ‘Why don’t you buy the company?’” I said, ‘I’m going to look into it.’”
“We could turn it into a socialist company if Obama authorizes me,” Chavez said. “The company can be bought and handed over to the workers.”
Chavez was no stranger to the Bronx. In the winter of 2005, according to the New York Times, he provided 8 million gallons of discounted heating oil to thousands of low-income residents in the South Bronx.
Brynwood rebuffed Chavez’s offer. The company never answered any calls made on his behalf.
With only 135 union members from a small union that only had 1,000 members total, the workers needed help from outside the union to have any chance, Landau said.
Landau was working as a staff reporter for the United Federation of Teachers when he traveled to Kingsbridge to cover the strikers in December 2008.
“They’d been on strike since August,” he said. “They were like starving to death on the picket line. It was like watching people die.”
Soon he went from writer to community organizer, steering the community outreach and working to make sure the plight of the Stella D’Oro worker was getting attention from the media and the rest of the labor world.
“I had just wanted to write about this thing,” he said. “I ended up getting involved to the point where the newspapers wouldn’t let me write about it anymore.”
Landau has since moved to Chicago, passing the torch to Rene Rojas, 37, a PhD student at New York University.
“The support committee itself is no longer functioning,” Rojas said. “I don’t think there will be a set of demands for Stella D’Oro anymore. The fight has shifted to getting the right severance package.”
After the strike was ended by a National Labor Relations Board ruling, Rojas said, the court ordered a new severance package for the workers. Now, Brynwood Partners is trying to revert to an older, less generous package that existed before the ruling.
“Right now I would say I’m too old to go look for a job,” said Emelia Dursu, 58, who worked at the factory as a table packer, placing cookies in trays for 20 years. She said she began working at the factory in 1979 after she immigrated to the New York City from Ghana. She has three children, all of them grown. “I’m going to wait and live on the little bit that I have and depend on my children to survive until my pension is around 2012 or 13.”
Mike Filippou, who worked as a lead mechanic at Stella for over 14 years and orchestrated much of the rally efforts is taking classes to become a certified mechanic so that he can pursue work at a Wonderbread factory in Queens which is a member of the Local 50 Union.
“I would say the majority of workers still have not been placed in jobs,” said Rojas. “It’s easier for those like Mike who have a certain skill, but the more unskilled workers will have a lot of trouble.”
While losing the security of a full-time job in an economy where opportunities for work are not bountiful is a hard blow to suffer, many of the workers mourn the loss of the family atmosphere at the plant.
“It was a job you were able to live off of,” Marrero said. “But it was also family-oriented.”
Marrero has the scar to prove it. Beneath his faded blue New York Giants t-shirt is a faint 6-inch scar running up his left side from when he donated his kidney in 2000 to Jerry Fleck, a fellow Stella worker who had worked with Marrero since 1983. Fleck is godfather to Marrero’s son.
“This is how we were at Stella D’Oro,” Marrero said.
Marrero said that losing his job didn’t affect him greatly as he had qualified for his pension and had already been planning to retire at 55. For now, he plans to get his commercial driver’s license with hopes of driving a school bus, giving him plenty of time for fishing, a favorite hobby of his.
As for the future of Stella D’Oro in their new home, Rivera is confident that Lance will get its comeuppance for moving the factory.
“It’s not going to work out for them,” she said. Stella D’Oro can only be made in New York. It can only be with New York water.”