July 1, 2011
By Alan Saly
The 11-month Stella D’oro strike – a heart breaker for the New York labor movement — gets a sympathetic, union member-centered portrayal in the forthcoming HBO Documentary, “No Contract, No Cookies,” to air on the network later this month.
The documentary’s first screening took place at DCTV on Lafayette Street on June 30, with the director/producers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill in the house, along with journalists Juan Gonzalez and Pete Hamill, and two dozen of the original Stella D’Oro factory workers.
As would be expected, there was spirited discussion and rounds of applause for the plucky workers who struck after their new employer demanded hefty wage and benefit concessions, and stayed out on the lines hoping for a miracle – only to have their prayers answered and then dashed to the ground. Local 50 BCTGM Shop Steward Mike Filippou, a constant presence on the strike lines, and Sara Rodriguez, a former packaging manager at the plant – both of whom are interviewed extensively in the film – shared accounts of the year on the lines and the final showdown with Brynwood Partners, the private equity fund that bought the company from Kraft Foods and ultimately decided to shut it down.
The film shows how some workers faced mounting health care bills and the prospect of losing their homes after strike benefits ran out and the regular Stella paycheck wasn’t coming in. But workers kept the sense of family alive and campaigned for support, even traveling to Brynwood’s corporate headquarters for a rally.
There was a burst of elation when a federal judge ruled, in early July of 2009, that Brynwood had failed to bargain in good faith and must reinstate the workers. But then Brynwood – which boasts of acquiring companies and ‘making them more efficient’ – brutally closed the plant, selling off the Stella D’Oro brand to Lance, Inc., a non-union outfit, which moved production to Ohio. The Bronx workers got a few months of back pay but found themselves looking for work in a decidedly difficult economic environment.
Many of the Stella D’oro strikers who came to the film’s premiere were upbeat, and many have landed on their feet. Money mattered a lot, but it wasn’t everything. Still stinging from the Union’s decision not to defy Brynwood and occupy the plant – as the immigrant laborers had in Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors – was Filippou, who believed that if the workers had taken aggressive action, the New York City labor movement would have been spurred on to make stopping the plant closing a do-or-die cause.
The PSC’s Barbara Bowen, who attended the screening, expressed deep disappointment at the lack of broader labor support for the Stella strikers. It didn’t happen, possibly because some labor leaders were still smarting over Local 50’s refusal to honor a Teamster’s picket line two years earlier, allowing non-union truckers in to pick up product. Among the unions that did lend support, the most noticeable ground troops on the lines came from the PSC.
Columnist and panelist Juan Gonzalez pointed out that, when Daily News writers struck a decade ago, unions across the City made sure they had a healthy strike fund to outlast management. That didn’t happen for the 138 Stella strikers.
Gonzalez, who is also the co-host of Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, ended the evening warning about the growing power of private equity funds like Brynwood, saying that, without shareholders or public accountability, they are free from scrutiny and can pursue the most destructive capitalist agendas.