Strikers win battle but may lose jobs

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NLRB rules against bakery

By Kate Pastor

They stopped chanting, put down their signs claiming victory and lined up single file.

The scene on West 237th Street and Broadway was full of mixed emotions Tuesday morning as workers struggled to reconcile all the news they had just received.

After spending nearly a year on a picket line outside the Stella D’oro factory’s gates, 128 workers were notified Monday afternoon that they were being invited to come back to work the next morning, a return to a routine of decades for some workers.

However, when they reported to work it was without a new contract and under the threat of the factory itself shutting down in just three months.

Brynwood Partners invited the strikers back following a National Labor Relations Board ruling that the company had to give workers back pay until they were reinstated under the terms of their old contract.

For those who have been taking shifts on the picket line instead of inside the factory for nearly a year, it was a clear sign of victory. And then came the bad news.

The Connecticut-based private equity firm was not only asking the workers back, it was notifying the union of its plans to appeal the National Labor Relation Board’s decision against it, and issuing a WARN notice stating plans to shut the factory down in 90 days. In New York City, that’s the minimum amount of notice required of employers who plan for mass layoffs.

Emelia Dorsu, a table packer for 18 years, had just learned of the company’s plan to shut down before she entered the gates.

“That’s what’s making me nervous,” she said.

Just to be able to walk through the factory doors and assume familiar positions in front of equipment was a hard-won win for the strikers. But it has turned into bittersweet one.

When news of the National Labor Relation Board’s ruling made its way to the picket line last week, workers were doing victory dances in the street. Their union, Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectioners, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, had prepared them for the likelihood of an appeal. But their celebration rally was about more than just the particulars.

“I thought that rich people always got things their way. Us little people never win,” said Ms. Dorsu, who sat through the hearings but was sure the workers wouldn’t win. To her, the court ruling was a victory in itself.

“Maybe we are dogs, but we bite,” one striker screamed out during a victory rally on the picket line July 1.

Mixed in with the joy of victory was a spirit of reconciliation on the line that day. As a replacement worker left the factory, a celebrating striker walked up to shake her hand, and she shook back; a job handoff of sorts.

“I’m happy for them and them and their families, but it’s also bad for us,” said the replacement worker, who refused to be identified.

Thursday was her last day after six months on the job.

Now strikers face a similar fate. While the union plans to fight Brynwood’s plans by pressuring it to sell the Stella D’oro brand to another buyer or cooperative of workers — the union’s lawyer, Louie Nikolaidis of Lewis, Clifton & Nikolaidis, said the company’s decision could soon mean many layoffs in Kingsbridge.

For Local 50 member Eddie Marrero, that’s likely to mean a delay in his plans to repay credit card and personal loans that have been piling up for months. And for the surrounding neighborhood, the impact will go well beyond the streets smelling a little less sweet, said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, founder of a community group formed to support the strikers.

Among the losses, “a tax base, a job base, real estate and an icon,” she said.

It will also, as Brynwood Partners pointed out in its statement, mean not only the strikers but replacement workers and other employees — many of them Bronxites — will lose their jobs.

Brynwood Partners maintains that the story’s sad ending is the result of the union’s refusal to compromise and the company’s inability, despite investing in cost-saving measures, to pay wages and benefits totaling more than $35 per hour.

Ms. Sheridan-Gonzalez, however, said it was about a greedy company that hasn’t been making the level of profits it would like.

From outside the company’s gates, the rallying cry of the day was that the fight was far from over.

“We need to let Brynwood Partners know, that if it closes it down here and attempts to move it somewhere else, we’re going wherever you go because there are unions, bakery unions, all over the United States and Canada. And we will not let you go to another city or state and circumvent this union and our membership,” said Joyce Alston, president of Local 50.

NLRB rules against Stella D’oro

When more than 130 union members walked away from their jobs at the Stella D’oro factory last summer, they did so with a long list of complaints about their contract, from lower wages to fewer sick, holiday and vacation days.

While those conditions have been used as a rallying cry to garner support for the strike and for a boycott of the famed cookies, their impact on workers’ lives was not what won them their biggest victory to date last week — a favorable ruling by the National Labor Relations Board.

At stake in the suit waged against Brynwood Partners was whether the company’s claims of not being able to afford to keep the factory open without reducing labor costs were sufficiently proven to workers before they walked away from the contract.

“[The judge] cited enough of the record to show that they said over and over and over again that they couldn’t stay in business and afford the rates in the contract,” said the union’s lawyer, Louie Nikolaidis of Lewis, Clifton & Nikolaidis.

According to the NLRB decision, though the company claimed it would not survive without cutting labor costs, it failed to sufficiently provide financial information to union members to prove it.

Stella D’oro workers were not alone in the dilemma they faced. An increasing number of workers around the country are being told they must accept pay cuts and other concessions to keep the companies they work for afloat. But The National Labor Relations Act requires employers who make that argument to back it up with proof.

By making this particular need argument, Brynwood Partners may have dug its own grave.

Under the ruling, the company will have to reinstate workers, give them back pay since their offer to go back to work under the old contract was refused in May, and “make them whole” for other lost benefits starting from that date.

Brynwood Partners has since said it would appeal the decision.

Explaining why Brynwood Partners did not simply say it wanted to lower pay and benefits, Mr. Nikolaidis said, “It’s not a convincing argument for … employers to say ‘we’re doing fine with what we’re paying you but we want to make super profits and the only way is for you to make concessions.’”

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