November 14, 2012

Hostess workers will lose, any way you slice it

Hostess employees in Biddeford realize that their walkout could close the plant for good.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Union employees picket Tuesday outside the Hostess Brands plant in Biddeford to protest cuts in wages and benefits. The workers went on strike Friday evening after the last loaf of bread was wrapped.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Jerry Leighton, a maintenance mechanic at Hostess Brands for 10 years, hopes the company shuts down and someone else takes over.

BIDDEFORD – Workers at the Hostess Brands plant in Biddeford picketed in the rain Tuesday, knowing that the walkout may end with the closing of the company that makes such iconic foods as Wonder Bread and Twinkies.

"I believe they'll liquidate. I don't see a good ending for this," said Rick Emery, a mechanic who has worked for Hostess for 17 years. "We're the losers in this. You get to the point, though, where you're bullied and bullied and at some point you have to stand up to them."

Workers in Biddeford went on strike around 5 p.m. Friday, after the last loaf of bread for the week was wrapped, according to Jerry Leighton, a maintenance mechanic who has worked for the company for 10 years.

The Biddeford plant, which employs about 370 workers, makes the iconic Hostess chocolate cupcake with the white icing squiggle down the center, pink Sno Ball confections, Wonder Bread and products.

Irving, Texas-based Hostess, which employs about 500 workers at the bakery and several outlets in Maine, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January -- its second bankruptcy in a decade. In September, contract concessions were approved by the Teamsters union, which covers delivery drivers, but 92 percent of the bakery union voted against the proposal.

The concessions, which affect both the bakery union and Teamsters, call for cuts in wages and benefits of 27 percent to 32 percent over the five-year contract, with an immediate wage cut of 8 percent, the bakery union said. The company stopped contributing to workers' pensions last year.

The bakery union represents about 5,680 Hostess workers, about 30 percent of Hostess' total work force.

Holding signs saying "corporate greed, not unions, is killing Hostess," workers in Biddeford have been picketing around the clock since Friday evening and intend to continue until the company closes or is bought, said Leighton.

Hostess on Monday said it would close plants in Seattle, St. Louis and Cincinnati because of the work stoppage. The company has said that an extended, widespread strike could force the company to liquidate. About 83 percent of Hostess' 18,300 workers are covered by union contracts.

"We deeply regret this decision, but we have repeatedly explained that we will close facilities that are no longer able to produce and deliver products because of a work stoppage -- and that we will close the entire company if widespread strikes cripple our business," Hostess Brands Chief Executive Gregory Rayburn said in a written statement.

"Some employees are apparently under the misimpression that if they force Hostess to liquidate, another company will buy our bakeries and offer them employment," Rayburn said. "The fact is, the bakery industry already has far too much capacity, and there is a strong risk that many of our facilities may never operate as bakeries again once they are closed."

The workers said they realize the strike could close Hostess for good.

"We're hoping that the company just shuts down. Get someone else in here. We don't know if any other companies are looking and we don't know if they'll sell," Leighton said.

A dozen Hostess plants nationally have gone on strike, with another 13 plants honoring the strike and staying off the job, according to the website for the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. Hostess has 36 bakeries nationally, the company's website said.

On Saturday, about three dozen workers from Biddeford traveled to Philadelphia to picket at a Hostess plant there.

Bill Kennedy, who has worked as a loader at the Biddeford plant for 22 years, said if it closes, it will mean unemployment and career changes for most workers. Kennedy said it may be hard for him to find a new job.

"I've been here too long," he said.

Leighton said the Teamsters union has been honoring the bakery union's picket line.

Hostess said it had hired independent trucking firms to deliver products, and two replacement workers in Biddeford.

Biddeford City Manager John Bubier declined to comment on what impact the strike, or a potential closure, would have on the city.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: jhall@mainetoday.com

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