BIDDEFORD — Hostess Brands bakery workers picketed through a 5 p.m. deadline Thursday, setting the stage for the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread to start liquidation proceedings.

Hostess, which employs 500 people in Maine and 18,000 nationally, had warned that if the strike continued past 5 p.m., it would go to bankrutpcy court Friday to seek to liquidate the company.

Hostess said it could begin laying off all workers and liquidating factories as early as Tuesday if it gets court approval.

Outside the gates of the Hostess plant on Precourt Street in Biddeford, about 150 workers counted down to the 5 p.m. deadline. They cheered and chanted, “Shut it down, shut it down” as the deadline passed.

The plant employs 370 people, including 300 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union.

“We’re out here in force to stop these guys from stealing from us,” said Erwin Merrill of Westbrook, who has worked for Hostess for 13 years. “They’ve taken our pension and cut our benefits and pay.”

In January, Hostess filed for bankruptcy, its second in a decade. In September, 92 percent of the bakery union rejected the contract concessions, which included an immediate 8 percent wage cut. The contract was approved by the Teamsters.

The bakery union, which represents about 30 percent of Hostess’ workers nationally, went on strike Nov. 9. Workers at two dozen bakeries have been on strike or honoring the walkout. Hostess has 36 bakeries nationally.

Company officials could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

Merrill and other striking workers said they hope that another company will buy the assets of Hostess and its iconic brands. The Biddeford plant makes bread, chocolate cupcakes, pink Sno Ball cakes and other confections.

“Ideally, we’d like to see a different company come in and keep the work force,” said Jim Carini, 50, who has worked for Hostess for 18 years.

Earlier on Thursday, the bakery union said it would end its strike if the company rescinded cuts in wages and benefits.

In a prepared statement, union President Frank Hurt said, “I am sure that our members would be agreeable to return to work as soon as the company rescinds the implementation of the horrendous wage and benefit reductions, including pension, and the restoration of the cuts that have already taken place.”

Hostess did not respond to that offer. The Irving, Texas-based company previously said it would not renegotiate the contract.

Sue Tapley, a bread mixer who has worked at the Biddeford plant for 13 years, said, “I have mixed feelings. I love my job.”

She said, “The pension is the crux of the whole thing. For me to give up a job that I loved, it had to be something serious like my retirement and future.”

The Teamsters union, which represents drivers for Hostess, recommended Thursday that the bakery union vote by secret ballot to determine whether the workers want to continue their strike and force the company into liquidation.

The Teamsters said the bakery union went on strike without warning its sister unions.

“This unannounced action put Teamster members in the difficult position of facing picket lines without knowing their right to honor such a line without being disciplined,” the Teamsters said in a statement. “That strike is now on the verge of forcing the company to liquidate — it is difficult for Teamster members to believe that is what the (bakery union) members ultimately wanted to accomplish when they went out on strike.”

John Jordan, a business agent for the bakery union’s Local 334, said another vote is unnecessary because the union made its wishes known when it rejected the contract terms. The union will keep picketing around the clock until the company closes down or sets new contract terms.

Hostess has been trying to keep the Biddeford plant operating with managers and some replacement workers. On Thursday, white SUVs with tinted windows carried some workers into and out of the plant, through the crowd of sneering picketers, who chanted “scabs out, unions in.”

About 14 union workers in Biddeford crossed the picket line to work, union employees said. Tapley said signs around the plant had offered union workers time-and-a-half wages to work during the strike.

“Everyone has their own reason for doing that,” she said. “Everybody has to do what’s right for them.”

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@mainetoday.com