Hostess bankruptcy as a move against workers

To counter the propaganda from Hostess and other capitalists who claim that labor’s demands are forcing them to close their doors and threaten the very existence of the supposedly iconic Twinkie, a lot of messages like the following are being sent around:

It brought to mind when I interviewed striking workers at the Earthgrain bakery (a factory-style bakery, of course) in Memphis back in 2000.  Earthgrain was acquired by Flower Foods last month, which is one of the anticipated bidders that will be trying to buy up Twinkies and Wonder Bread from Hostess (so those famed brands will not be going away, as suggested).

The issues are similar at Hostess.  If you listen to workers, you will get the real story, which the media don’t do a good job of finding or paying attention to.  Hearing, eliciting, listening to, recording, and generalizing the voices from below, from the movement from practice, is central to the mission of News & Letters.  That is a big part of its uniqueness.

Here’s the story the workers at Earthgrains told us then (printed in the October 2000 issue of News & Letters):

Earthgrains strike

Memphis, Tenn.—We’re on strike at Earthgrains Bakery for ourselves and in support of workers at other plants producing Earthgrains and Colonial bread and buns. At the Memphis plant there are about 80 people out, from a little over 100. They have the bread lines shut down because they don’t have enough people in there to run them.

About half the 65 or so bakeries in the U.S. are shut down, including plants in Oklahoma, California, Illinois, Kentucky and Texas. If the company isn’t going to listen, we’ll get strength from our other bakeries and start shutting them down one by one.

They’re trying to bust the union. They recently bought several non-union bakeries and agreed to make them unionized (BCTGM), but it’s been a couple of years and they’re still not up to the union pay scales. At the Mobile, Ala. plant they’re not even getting paid for overtime after eight hours, but only after 40 hours a week or 12 hours in a day.

They’re also making the workers at Mobile co-pay for their health insurance. If you get a 30 cents an hour raise and you’ve got to pay $25 a week for your insurance, you’re still losing. We’re afraid it could happen here if we let it happen there.

It’s a real high stress level job, because it’s a continuous process. You can’t stop in the middle because the dough starts rising and you’ve got to get it in the oven. If something breaks down we’ve really got to hustle to get it back on track. If the oven goes down for more than five minutes, the product’s burnt up. The bread is coming at 120 loaves a minute, but they don’t put safety guards on machines until someone gets hurt.

Earthgrains had $2 billion in sales, and their statement that was sent out to all the employees said they had “record-breaking sales last year.” If they’re doing good, we’re the ones that are doing it for them, and we ought to get paid what we’re worth.

Every year, during negotiations, they put out their final offer and say take it or leave it. But this year, we said, here’s our final offer. You take it or leave it.

—Black and white striking workers

Editor’s note: As we go to press, the BCTGM has declared victory. Ft. Payne, Ala. workers ratified a three-year contract that the union says protects jobs and acknowledges the right to honor picket lines, limits mandatory overtime and restores medical and dental insurance. Mobile workers got a separate first contract. The attack on the Alabama workers was the spark for the solidarity strikes at Earthgrains plants nationwide, beginning in Memphis.

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