Standing strong at Stella D’oro

April 3, 2009

More than 100 people gathered in the rain in front of the Stella D'oro factory in the Bronx to try to stop scabs from going in and show solidarity with members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTWGM) International Union Local 50, who have been on strike since August of last year.

Picketers included strikers; members of the Stella D'oro Strike Support Committee; students and faculty from CUNY schools, who are fighting budget cuts; members of United Federation of Teachers; and people from the community. The support committee has been organizing since December, building a march through the neighborhood and leafletings at local stores asking consumers to boycott Stella D'oro cookies.

Sara Rodriguez, a Stella D'oro worker for 11 years and supervisor on the third shift, and Mike Filippou, a mechanic and union representative at the factory for 15 years, talked to Peter Lamphere and Damien Walton about what's at stake in the struggle.

CAN YOU tell our readers the basic issues that led to the strike?

Mike: Basically, the issues were economic. They tried to take a dollar a year for the next five years, so in five years, people would be making $13 an hour. And they're going to have to pay $1.50 for their benefits, so that would bring it down to $11.50 an hour. They want all 12 sick days we have and five holidays, and one week of vacation. They want to withdraw from the pension plan. In exchange, they'll give us a 401k.

Worst of all from my perspective is that they want to rewrite the old contract. They just want to eliminate half of it, and write it the way they want it. If we accept that and go back inside, it would be like we have no union. They can fire you any minute, and we could never fight back.

So that's why we went on strike; we've been on strike since August 15. To this day, we've held solid, and no one has crossed the line. We're still waiting on a decision from the labor board.

SO HOW did people react to the company's contract proposal. Was there a vote on the strike?

Stella D'oro strikers demonstrate in front of a Bronx store to call on shoppers to boycott Stella products
Stella D'oro strikers demonstrate in front of a Bronx store to call on shoppers to boycott Stella products (Monique Dols | SW)

Sara: Yes, we had a meeting prior to coming out on strike. One hundred percent of people voted for a strike.

IT'S A very diverse group of people I've noticed on the picket line, from all types of different backgrounds, men and women. How has that affected building solidarity in the union?

Mike: I think the main thing is that the struggle brings us closer, and we spend more time together. We never had the time to spend before. Most of the workers don't have the time to hang out and talk and know each other, but on the picket line, we have a lot of time together. That's how we became pretty close as coworkers.

IN A lot of workplaces, they try to use people's ethnic backgrounds to try to split them apart. Is there a history of that at Stella D'oro?

Mike: I think in the beginning, they tried to make two groups. One group was the people with skills, and the other group was the people with no skills. The first group was machine operators, mixers, mechanics, electricians, utility. They tried not to take money from their wages, but they were going to try to take sick days, holidays and all the other stuff in the contract. But they made a big mistake, because we all came out solid. They fell on that big time.

Sara: But they have been trying--when they come out and ask a few people on the picket lines why they don't go back to work. And they sent letters.

Mike: Actually, I have a copy of one of the letters. They threatened people: "If you don't come back, you're going to lose your seniority." The other mistake they made is they told people, "You have to resign from the union to come back."

WHAT ARE conditions like in the factory now?

Mike: Now these people [the scabs] have nothing--no sick days, no holidays, no benefits, absolutely nothing. They pay them $10 an hour and tell them that's because they have no experience. So those people are making $10 now, and our people were making $18 to $19 an hour.

I hear stories from them because I talk to some of them. They say that if you go to lunch, and you go to the bathroom after lunch, and you're two minutes late, they tell you not to come back tomorrow. If they ask you to work overtime, and you refuse, they tell you don't come back.

Sara: They changed the system. I heard that they take points away if you miss a day of work--they take two points. I also heard that as soon as you're supposed to start working, the time is running.

Mike: I think that was the goal--to get rid of the union and have an environment the way they have it right now. Because they can just do whatever they want.

I remember when they came in, any time we had any disagreement about a contract violation or anything like that, Dan Myers, the operations manager, wrote everything down. I knew when we went back to the table to negotiate the new contract, whatever disagreements we had, he wanted to delete all those parts.

Brynwood brought Stella D'oro from Kraft for $17.5 million. Before that, Nabisco bought it from the family that was the original owners for $110 million. So you figure it out. If they sell it right now, they're going to make more money. So that's their goal--to get rid of the union and high labor costs, and increase the business again, and sell for $150-200 million. That's their goal. That's how they're going to make their money.

WHAT'S BEEN the history of the union at Stella D'oro? Have there been previous strikes or other struggles with the company before Brynwood took over?

Mike: Actually, there were two strikes. The longest one was six weeks. People demanded the "golden 80," which was a pension plan based on years of service. They won that demand in six weeks.

AND I heard there was a Teamsters strike a couple years ago?

Sara: The drivers went out on strike, but we have a different union. So when they went out on strike, they were supposed to let the rest of the employees, like Local 50, know. That way, we could come out with them. For whatever reason, that didn't happen. So we came out with them two days into the strike, and Kraft sent us a letter saying go back to work because we're not supposed to strike.

Mike: When we went out for two days, and they sent a letter to the union and said they were going to fire us for the work stoppage. The president of the union felt that if we stayed out, we were going to lose. So we went back inside.

At that time, 50 percent of the Teamster drivers were laid off. The Teamsters settled somehow, and they laid them off permanently. And as soon as Brynwood took over, they got rid of the other half. There's no more Teamsters in there.

HAS THE strike experience influenced workers politically?

Mike: I think so, because we have a lot of the left-wing groups coming here and talking to the people, and these are the only people we see. We don't see any Republicans here, and not even Democrats.

We have three groups of people. The first group is more interested and more energetic. I'd say there's about eight people who do that. Then we have another group of people who are in between. They help a little bit. Then there's the majority of the people who just want to come to the line and stay there. They just don't want to get involved. They look depressed, actually. They've become skeptical. They have families. They have kids. They have no benefits.

WHAT HAVE you been doing to try to keep up people's morale and get people more active?

Mike: In the beginning of the strike, when we had the opportunity of putting a tent on the picket line, I used to barbeque every night with a few other guys. We used to have a party, and everyone was happy. Then the police came and knocked everything down, and took the chairs, so we don't even have chairs to sit down. We have a lot of older people in their 50s, so that was very difficult for them.

Sara: Sometimes you try to talk to people, and let them know what's going on. Every day, they ask if there's something new, and unfortunately, we don't have anything to tell them.

But for myself, I say that I have hope. I have faith that they won't be able to make things run how it used to. Come on--we know people who worked there for so many years. So they can't expect for all the new people to come in and do the same.

Mike: We see the place like its our place. We used to put a lot of effort into it, and work very, very hard for this place. And when these new people took over, we worked twice as hard to prove that we're good.

Sara: At the end, I think everybody was putting a little more into it because we thought Kraft was eliminating a lot of cookies. We thought that by working more, business would get better, because that's what they said.

Last year, we had a barbeque party, and they told us that business was getting better. They have a lot of products and new customers. They couldn't keep up with the orders. We were giving a little bit more, but we thought this would be for us--if they make more money, we're going to make more money.

But in the end, look what happened. We're working two or three jobs. Somebody would retire, and they wouldn't replace them. Everyone was working more.

Mike: They tricked us. We feel like we've been betrayed by these people.

The other thing is these people weren't truthful. They didn't tell the truth from the beginning. When we were sitting at the table, they told us that they're losing $1.5 million a year. They just wanted to cover these losses immediately because of the investors. But when we added up the estimates of what they wanted us to give back, it wasn't only $1.5 million. Between the vacation time, the holidays and the contract, it's close to $10 million.

WOULD YOU hope to encourage more workers around the city if you win the strike?

Sara: Definitely!

Mike: That's our goal, actually--to let the most people possible be aware that next time, they're going to be in our shoes, because this is spreading like a disease. The past few years, unions keep losing battles. That's why we want people to know what's going on. If we win this battle, it's going to be a very positive thing for a lot of unions to see and be encouraged by.

Sara: The same way they support us, I'll be doing the same thing for them. That's very important.

Jessica Carmona-Baez contributed to this article.

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