Corporate Cookie Monsters

hartongThe Pyrrhic victory achieved by the Stella D’Oro workers in the Bronx — they won an eleven-month strike but are slated to lose their jobs anyway — says a lot about what is wrong with American capitalism.

One lesson is obvious: there is no fairness in a collective bargaining system in which employers can make unreasonable demands (which in this case included a 20 percent pay cut and elimination of paid vacation and sick days), pretend to bargain until an impasse is reached and then bring in strikebreakers when the workers are compelled to walk off the job.

The Stella D’Oro situation was unusual in that a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge finally ordered the reinstatement of the strikers, but that was only because he found that management failed to provide the union, Local 50 of the Bakery Workers, an audited financial statement to substantiate company claims of financial distress.

Whatever satisfaction the workers, who exhibited amazing solidarity during the strike, took in the NLRB ruling was dampened by the company’s subsequent announcement that it plans to shut down the plant, which has been in operation for more than half a century. The company abided by its WARN Act notice obligation, but in the current economic climate it will be difficult for workers to find other employment within 90 days.

Much has been made of the fact that Stella D’Oro is now owned by Brynwood Partners, one of those bloodsucking private equity firms. Brynwood — headed by Hendrik Hartong Jr. (photo) — certainly deserves plenty of scorn for its treatment of the workers. This is a firm, after all, that did not hesitate to accept taxpayer funds in the form of a 2008 Manufacturing Assistance Grant of $175,000 from the Empire State Development Corporation. It has also received property tax abatements from New York City.

Apparently Brynwood, whose website brags that its investments have earned a 28.8 percent overall rate of return, thought it was under no obligation to give back to the community and to its workers. It is unfortunate that among the investors in Brynwood are public pension funds such as the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System.

While the Stella D’Oro dispute is certainly a case of private equity behaving badly, it should be admitted that the cookie company was not always a model employer under its previous owner, publicly traded Kraft Foods, which in 2006 sold the business to Brynwood. In 2002 and 2003 Teamsters Local 550, which represented the company’s delivery drivers, clashed with Stella D’Oro management during negotiations on a new contract. The Teamsters struck the company in February 2003 to block what the union said was a plan to replace union drivers with non-union ones, and soon the walkout spread to other Kraft facilities in the New York metropolitan area. It appears the union got crushed.

The behavior of the Cookie Monsters who have run Stella D’Oro shows that removing barriers to union organizing is not the only urgent task for labor law reform. The system also needs to be changed to prevent unscrupulous employers from undermining unions already in place.

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