Streams

Snow or Shine, Stella D'oro Workers Keep Striking

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stella D'oro has been baking cookies, breadsticks and biscotti in the Bronx since the 1930s, but these days much of the action is outside its factory. That's where 136 workers have been staging a continuous strike since August. WNYC's Arun Venugopal has more.

REPORTER: The Stella D'oro strike is now in its seventh month, and at this advanced stage there aren't any of the obvious displays of a strike, like people holding up signs, or organized chanting. This has become a slog.

FLECK: We're okay. Summertime wasn't bad. It was okay in the beginning.

REPORTER: Jerry Fleck worked at the factory for 27 years before the strike.

FLECK: Then, the cold days you get through. We were doing four six-hour shifts, now we're down to four hours. If you can't make it on a really really bad day, like five degrees, we don't come here.

REPORTER: Today the temperature's in the 20s. Jerry and a few others stand around - or sit - just across the street from the factory, in the shadow of the elevated 1 Train. Several of them stay warm inside a trolley in the parking lot.

These days, the workers are getting by on unemployment, and 100 dollars a week from their union, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International. Before the strike, Jerry was earning $21 an hour as a skilled worker.

FLECK: We're living check to check. And the only reason I survive now is I got a home equity loan. So actually I'm going into debt over this.

REPORTER: The strike is over the workers' next contract. According to union members, negotiations came to a standstill when management asked them to take wage and benefits cuts. They say that most workers would see their hourly pay go down by $1 a year for five years. They've also been asked to bear more of their healthcare costs. Gurdeep Mann has worked at Stella D'oro for 20 years.

MANN: They're cutting me same thing - one week vacation, 12 sick day, four holiday they're cutting me. And I have to pay still 20 percent medical. It's not easy living with less money while you're already struggling for everything.

REPORTER: In 2006, Stella D'oro was sold by Kraft to Brynwood Partners, a private equity firm in Connecticut. Brynwood isn't taking any questions about the strike. But it did release a statement, defending its contract offer and calling its proposed benefits "generous." According to Brynwood, the union's decision to go on strike, just as the economy was tanking, was "the wrong choice at the wrong time." The company's statement also praises the replacement workers who now operate the Stella D'oro factory.

(workers shouting at replacements)

REPORTER: But the strikers have another name for the replacement workers.

FILIPPOU: Hey, stinky scab!

MARRERO: You can't get a better job?!

REPORTER: The replacements periodically walk in and out of the factory, refusing to answer any questions and generally ignoring the namecalling from the strikers. One of those strikers is Mike Filippou, who's put in 14 years at the factory.

FILIPPOU: They don't even have shame on their face.

REPORTER: Filippou is a big, boisterous guy. He was arrested a few months ago, for allegedly leaving nails under the tires of a replacement worker's car.

Today, just as he's been going on about replacement workers and how inept they are, one of them drives up in an 18-wheeler. The man's trying to get to the Stella D'oro parking lot, but he's taken the wrong street and now finds himself underneath the el, with the union members looking on.

(truck engine revving up, banging the el)

The truck is tall and starts scraping against the el's underside. Soon, there's car traffic building up behind the 18-wheeler and in front of him, so he tries to force his way through. That causes the top of the truck's trailer to crunch up.

(loud metallic crunching sound)

So the driver backs up. But a few minutes later, he tries again, gunning the truck forward so that it finally squeezes through - but is completely ripped open in the front and back. The truck’s trailer has been destroyed, and that makes Mike Filippou happy.

FILIPPOU: See, God punish the scabs. You see how they get punished? By destroying their trucks. That's what happen to them.

REPORTER: For now, the workers appear to be unified and willing to wait for the company to buckle. But some of them worry about health care, or meeting mortgage payments, and think about getting new jobs.

The strikers say the unskilled workers will be hit worst by the new contract. The skilled workers seem especially offended at the way the factory is now being run, by what they consider incompetent and sloppy workers.

MARRERO: But he says It is disgusting.

FILIPPOU: They got no quality control.

MARRERO: It's disgusting. You can't even walk the floors.

Eddie Marrero, a longtime foreman, says many Stella D'oro products are now inferior, like their Swiss Fudge cookies.

EDDIE: One of the number-one products. It either has no fudge. Fudge covering the cookie. Cookies stuck together with the fudge, cookies all out of shape.

REPORTER: To listen to Mike Filippou, this isn't just a matter of contract provisions, but pride.

FILIPPOU: We have bakers who have been here for 35 years. They create all these cookies. They came, they bring people from the street - they think they're going to make the cookies we used to make. Never going to happen. I see the cookies in the supermarket, they way they look, and I want to cry.

REPORTER: In addition to their strike, the union is taking legal action against Brynwood Partners, saying the company hasn't negotiated in good faith. The workers have also organized a boycott of Stella D'oro products - they hope the boycott will gain momentum, and that management will have no choice, but to come back to the table. For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.

For more on the strike, listen to Arun's conversation with WNYC's Richard Hake on The Takeaway:

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