Half A Loaf Is Better Than None (or How The Cookie Crumbled)

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When we saw the movie Norma Rae, we could not help but believe in what she wanted – basic dignity, a decent wage, working conditions that would not kill her like they killed her father Vernon (portrayed by Pat Hingle).  We liked her, we REALLY liked her.

Unions had a place in this country for good reason.  As the U.S. became more industrialized, needing more workers to do more jobs, unscrupulous factory owners took advantage of people who would do anything to earn some money – I was going to say “earn a living”, but it wasn’t even a living – it was only a few coins, often only enough to get a person from one day to the next.  Children, women, and men in sweatshops, factories, slaughterhouses, even farm fields – the history of labor struggles are well chronicled in such novels as The Jungle (Upton Sinclair, 1909), Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men.

The only time I was a union member was when I worked for a grocery store chain.  They call them “clerk’s helpers” now.  When I was employed, we were simply called “baggers” or “box boys” (in my case, girl).  The union dues were reasonable for my job, which was paid at about twice the minimum hourly rate – $3.25 (minimum back then was $1.65).  It guaranteed me health insurance, which was extremely important to me.  We never went on strike, no one ever had a disagreement with management (other than the knucklehead who got fired for stealing; yah, that was bad).  Those were the good years for unions, I guess.

A while back, GM had, let’s call it, oh, I don’t know, “a bump in the road” – how about that phrase?  Bummer for them, right?  Bummer, also for who knows how many of their employees who participated in their retirement plan for who knows how many years.  Well, I know of at least one person who worked his way up through the ranks to mid-management (having STARTED in the union and of course graduated to NON-union since management is the ENEMY – at least, that is what the UNION wants the rank and file to believe).  When GM was “reorganized” (we don’t want to use the “B” word) and tax money was invested in GM, the “old” GM stock became worthless and “new” GM stock was issued (incidentally, the new stock is worth 30% less than on IPO – but I digress).  Guess what “pension plan” my friend at GM had?  You win a cookie – OLD GM stock – 23 years worth(less).  He still works there – at least he has a job.  That was another little gem – GM closed the plant near his home and said he could either “retire” or relocate to Michigan (800 miles away).  Not wanting to uproot his family, he drove to Michigan for the work week and stayed in an apartment for 2 years until GM recently re-opened the plant near his home and blessedly gave him back his local mid-management job.  So GM is limping along, the employees are happy, for the moment, and the stock is sinking like the Titanic.  Not.Good.

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Enter Hostess and the ever popular (dare I use the word iconic or has it been done to death?) Twinkie snack cake.  I once laughed myself nearly sick when I saw a store shelf stacked with “Twinkie Lite” cakes – I kid you not.  I mean really, WHAT would be the point?  But that is a whole ‘nother blog entry.

Listening to the striking employees – one woman had worked for the Seattle Hostess plant for 37 years, “Everything I have, I owe to this job” she said – it was clear they were sincere in their belief their demands were reasonable.  Their wages have already been cut and now will be cut again.  The company wants to take away their pension plan and alter their health plan so they will pay a higher share of cost.  “The company’s demands will leave us in a position of making barely more than minimum wage” one man stated.

So the CEO of Hostess, Greg Rayburn (who, curiously enough, received a 300% raise BEFORE the bankruptcy was announced), has decided to sell the company off piecemeal, blaming the decision on the Baker’s union (BCTGM).  According to the Sacramento Bee (13 November 2012), “BCTGM International Union President Frank Hurt stated, ‘The recent claim by Hostess CEO Greg Rayburn that our strike is the reason for the closure of the three bakeries is simply not true.  That statement is a continuation of a disturbing pattern by the company of issuing public statements that are erroneous at best and disingenuous at worst.’  Over the past eight years since the first Hostess bankruptcy, BCTGM members have watched as money from previous concessions that was supposed to go towards capital investment, product development, plant improvement and new equipment, was squandered in executive bonuses, payouts to Wall Street investors and payments to high-priced attorneys and consultants.”  The article elaborates on the concessions made by workers since 2004, including cuts to wages and benefits.

Still, as the title says, half a loaf is better than none. Get through the current situation then address the inequity of management compensation compared to that of the rank and file.  H-m-m-m.  Maybe we need SUV’s more than we need Twinkies.