Sunday, September 14, 2008

‘No Contract, No Cookies’


‘No Contract, No Cookies’

AS it neared 5 o’clock on a recent Friday, the workers from the Stella D’oro cookie factory in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx sat in collapsible lounge chairs beneath brightly colored striped umbrellas and a blue tarp. They were settling in for their version of a late summer weekend, which meant trading off shifts on the 24-hour picket line they have been keeping since Aug. 13.

The workers are on strike against the Stella D’oro Biscuit Company, which was acquired by Brynwood Partners in 2006. According to Joyce Alston, the president of Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union, the proposed contract would reduce the pay for about half of the factory’s nearly 140 workers over the next five years and would weaken certain benefits.

Juan Torres, 51, who has worked for Stella D’oro for 15 years, stood beside his co-workers on the picket line, wearing a Yankees T-shirt and mulling his future finances.

“How I can send my kids to college or send them for a better education if every year I’m going to make less money?” Mr. Torres asked. “The cost of living right now is very high, everything, the gas, the food.”

According to an Aug. 27 letter from Daniel Myers, the chief operating officer of Stella D’oro, to Ms. Alston, the proposed contract would raise some workers’ wages, lower others’ and leave others’ unchanged, and would reduce the number of paid holidays, eliminate paid sick days and keep pension benefits intact.

Neither Mr. Myers nor other Stella D’oro managers responded to several phone calls and e-mail messages for elaboration on the contract or the strike. Robb MacKie, the president of the American Bakers Association, said he was not specifically familiar with the Stella D’oro matter, but he did say that the general economics of the industry are currently challenging.

“All of the industry costs are up,” Mr. MacKie said, citing staple ingredients like flour, sugar and shortening. As a result, he said, baking companies are being forced to raise consumer prices and to reduce their labor, marketing and other costs.

Back on the picket line, the workers have persisted, sticking to their slogan of “No contract, no cookies” and holding a rally on, suitably, Labor Day. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz was among the officials present; he roused the crowd when he said that the beautiful aroma of cookies in the community had started to stink.

Ms. Alston said that the union and the company have conducted some talks, but that they were no longer meeting. “Honestly, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, adding, “We’re prepared to fight by any legal means.”

Raymond Armerino, 61, has been with Stella D’oro for 36 years and said he would rather be working than on strike. “I love this place,” he said. But he said that if the workers were replaced, cookie quality would suffer.

“The people here,” Mr. Armerino said, referring to those around him, “know how to make a great cookie.”


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