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Working In These Times

Monday, Feb 25, 2013, 6:34 pm

New Aid for Hostess Workers As Bakeries Auction Approaches

BY Bruce Vail

BCTGM President David Durkee (left) and retired Bakery union leader Joe Thibodeau call on Wall Street to pay its fair share at a 'Tax Wall Street, Not Main Street' rally outside the White House in 2011.The event was sponsored by National Nurses United.   (Photo courtesy of BCTGM.)

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced an expanded package of benefits for more than 18,000 workers fired from their jobs at Hostess Brands, the company famous for producing Wonder Bread and Twinkies.

The workers—formerly employed in 864 separate Hostess locations in 48 states—were summarily fired last November when company managers closed the company rather than reach an agreement with striking members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM).

Labor Department spokesperson Gloria Della said the fired workers are now eligible for special benefits under the agency’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides extended aid in addition to normal unemployment compensation. The benefits include financial help for job searches, retraining, relocation and related expenses, she said. No specific cash amount has been set aside for the Hostess workers, according to Della, but the total cost could amount to several thousand dollars for each eligible worker. In all cases, displaced workers should apply for the new benefits at their state unemployment or workforce development offices, she said.

The labor agency was immediate attacked by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, for favoring striking workers over the company’s owners. However, the new benefits program applies equally to BCTGM members, to members of other Hostess unions that did not go on strike, and to non-union workers, including many managers. 

The announcement comes as the sale of the company’s bakeries and other assets moves forward, raising the possibility that at least some of the plants will be re-opened under new ownership, according to BCTGM President David Durkee. The company’s assets have been divided up into several large chunks and will be auctioned off in separate pieces, Durkee said. The first such sale is scheduled to take place on Thursday.

Since the strike and the mass firings late last year, BCTGM has been evaluating—and courting—prospective buyers of the old bakeries who might be willing to offer new jobs to the fired Hostess workers, Durkee told Working In These Times. “We don’t have any agreements in place [with potential buyers], but there are obvious benefits to a new owner” in re-hiring fired BCTGM members in similar jobs, he said.

The initial focus in the baking industry is on Flowers Foods, a Georgia-based company with baking operations and distribution networks in the South and Mid-Atlantic regions. Flowers is the so-called “stalking horse bidder” that has already offered $360 million for 20 Hostess bakeries. Currently, Flowers operates a mix of union and non-union plants, with BCTGM collective bargaining agreements already in place in several cities, Durkee said.

“There are [legal] restrictions in place” that have prevented direct talks with potential buyers leading up to the auction process, he continued, but a provisional sale in the coming weeks should allow the union to enter direct talks with Flowers and others. Reaching a collective bargaining agreement with new owners "is not going to be an easy thing,” Durkee said. But, he added, such contracts may provide the best means of getting the old Hostess bakeries back into operation quickly. “Our people are skilled," said Durkee. "They know the equipment and they know how to make a good product. They weren’t the ones who ran Hostess into the ground.”

As Durkee sees it, “the difference between Hostess and these new owners is that Hostess did not want to be in the business of baking." It was always the intention of Hostess’ hedge-fund owners to dismember the company, said Durkee, and it was impossible to reach reasonable agreement with them. “We are always willing to work with any company that is committed to making a quality product and providing decent middle-class jobs for its workers,” he said.

Durkee declined to speculate on the likelihood that BCTGM will win back the jobs lost at Hostess. But he added that he feels an obligation to try. “Our people have been through a lot. They were incredibly courageous” in voting for the strike against Hostess, and they showed impressive solidarity in the face of threats and intimidation. “I just admire them tremendously," he said. "I would do anything for them."

Durkee concluded with a sharp criticism of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, which has consistently sided with Hostess managers against its unions since the company entered bankruptcy proceeding early last year. Durkee believes that court has allowed itself to be manipulated by the Hostess financial managers from the start. “We’re disappointed by the court," he said. "It doesn’t seem like the working people got a fair shake in the legal process."

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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