The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 82 (Winter 2010)
The following leaflet was written for the Labor Day march in New York City (held on September 12 rather than the official holiday). It took place during the final weeks of a bitter struggle by the unionized workers at Stella D’oro baking plant in the Bronx borough of New York, which had begun in the fall of 2008. This struggle ended in misery for the strikers, as Brynwood Partners, the private equity firm owning the plant, shut it down and sold the company to non-union Lance, Inc.
Brynwood had demanded concessions that would have amounted to a massive drop in the workers’ standard of living, including slashing wages as much as 25 percent, imposing crushing health insurance premiums and eliminating holidays, vacation and sick pay. The union leadership was thus obliged to call a strike, to which the rank and file wholeheartedly responded. After 11 months, the National Labor Relations Board ruled partly in the union’s favor. Its decision centered on the fact that Brynwood would not provide the union with a copy of its financial statements, which it claimed proved the need for cutbacks – it did not challenge the massive concessions themselves. And the NLRB offered no protection when Brynwood immediately announced in response that it would close the plant in three months’ time.
So the workers returned to work in July with the threat of closure looming. As the leaflet details, the organizational strength of labor was not brought to bear in the Stella D’oro struggle. A number of bureaucrats showered praise on the Stella workers while at the same time refusing to lend real assistance, namely mass labor action; nor did the Local 50 leadership press the labor leaders to do so. Our leaflet confronted directly this failure to do what was necessary to prevent a smashing defeat.
The entire unionized workforce of the Stella D’oro biscuit company in the Bronx has been told that within weeks they will be laid off; the company is being sold to new owners who will close the factory and shift production to a non-union plant in Ohio. The labor movement cannot stand by and watch the bosses throw these workers out like garbage after their many years of work and long struggle for their rights.
The owners’ latest move is their planned payback for the workers’ heroic eleven month strike against demands for massive cuts to their wages, benefits and working conditions. For the duration of that strike, New York’s labor leaders mouthed words of sympathy for the Stella D’oro workers, but they did nothing to mobilize the potential power of the unions to keep scabs out of the factory and win the strike.
The strike ended only when the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to take the workers back under their old contract. But predictably, neither the NLRB nor any other government body has lifted a finger to stop this latest attack. Now, only massive action by New York’s unions can stop this vicious attempt at union-busting. If the Stella D’oro bosses are allowed to get away with this crime, it will encourage a further escalation of the anti-union, anti-worker attacks that are growing across the country as the bosses try to make the working class pay for their economic crisis.
At this late stage, winning this struggle won’t be easy, but it can and must be won, not just for the sake of the Stella D’oro workers and their families, but for the entire working class. First, workers must recognize that if the leaders of New York’s unions are allowed to continue their year-long policy of empty words and token gestures of support for the Stella D’oro workers, defeat is guaranteed. Massive labor action is needed to stop the factory from being closed.
Further, the local city politicians cannot be allowed to stand by without being challenged to use their power to fight for the city government to take the factory out of the hands of the private capitalists who own it. The politicians, of course, have no intention of taking such action; Republicans tend to be open in their support of capitalist interests while Democrats specialize in running election campaigns full of expressions of concern for working people before they loyally pursue the interests of the capitalist profiteers. But experience proves that massive action can force them to concede workers’ demands.
By coupling mass labor action with demands on the politicians in this way, the Stella D’oro struggle can point the way forward for workers around the country who are facing factory closure and layoffs. Working people have already seen that the capitalists think nothing of turning to the Federal government to rescue them from the financial crisis of their own system. It is high time that the workers’ organizations demand that the government solve the real crisis of production and jobs that is currently devastating workers’ lives.
The working class needs a nation-wide campaign to stop the wave of factory closings and layoffs with the demand to Nationalize the Union-Busters! Nationalize the Failing Industries! Such a struggle could do more than win important victories; as we will explain, it could teach growing numbers of workers revolutionary lessons about how to answer the capitalists’ economic crisis that is threatening the lives of workers everywhere.
The great push on the part of the union tops to restore Democratic Party rule in the White House and in Congress was supposed to be the salvation of the unions. But where has depending on Democratic Party politicians, lobbying, and other passive strategies got us? The popular celebrations that greeted Barack Obama’s election as President have given way to growing disappointment. While Wall Street has been bailed out, the working class at home has been left to face growing unemployment and masses abroad continue to be slaughtered in the U.S.’s bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The union bureaucrats’ strategy has driven the union movement into the ground. Union membership in the private sector has fallen under 9% – a level so low that it has not been seen since the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930’s – before massive working class struggles forged the CIO. While there is a greater share of unionization in the public sector, union leaders across the board accept layoffs and cutbacks, force substandard contracts on the membership, and make backroom deals with the bosses and politicians that leave the vast majority of workers high and dry.
The union bureaucracy today, rather than standing for the unity of the workers in struggle against the bosses, presides over the increasing misery of the working class, accepting that we must pay for the economic crisis created by the capitalist system. Consider the record of the “Grand Marshall” of this year’s Labor Day Parade, AFSCME District 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts. Rather than lead workers in a struggle to defend their jobs, wages and benefits, Roberts has sought to cooperate with the bosses. She even endorsed Republican billionaire union-buster Michael Bloomberg four years ago in the hope that doing so would ease his attacks on her union’s members. Instead, Bloomberg launched a wave of layoffs and other attacks, and Roberts has turned to endorsing Democrat Bill Thompson in the coming elections. Meanwhile, as last month’s edition of DC37’s Public Employee Press explained, Roberts recently agreed to big new healthcare co-pays by workers in return for not an end to threatened layoffs, but just a three-month delay in the killing of a thousand public sector jobs.
Roberts and the rest of the city’s union leaders plan on leading the Stella D’oro workers to a similar end. Fearful of looking unconcerned about the Stella workers’ fate, the Central Labor Council some time ago offered them pride of place at the head of the Labor Day Parade. More recently, however, the workers learned that they would be forced to follow behind whole contingents of functionaries from other unions. Roberts and the other union hacks are turning the Labor Day Parade into the Stella D’oro struggle’s funeral march.
Workers must take every opportunity to forcefully challenge the labor tops to mobilize massive action in support of any decision the Stella workers make to fight the plant closing. Starting with Labor Day and at every union meeting that follows, from the Central Labor Council to Delegate Assemblies to union local and division meetings, union leaders should face clear demands and where possible, motions, for mass action.
At this point, a march from Goldman Sachs to City Hall is being called for 5pm Friday, September 25, by the Stella Workers Solidarity Committee. All the union leaders should be challenged to mobilize the largest possible attendance by steward mobilizations, phone and e-mail notices to the members and prominent advertisements on the homepages of all union websites and in major newspapers. A big turn out at that demonstration could build for further action at the factory itself. (More details should be available soon at the Solidarity Committee website at www.stelladorostrike.com as well as at this site.)
Stella D’oro workers must also face the bitter truth that if they are to avoid defeat, they must break from the perspective of the leaders of their own union, Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM). While Stella workers have been betrayed by the refusal of the entire labor leadership to mobilize in their support, Local 50 President Joyce Alston and the rest of the BCTGM leaders have played right along. While Alston knew she could never accept the drastic concessions demanded by the Stella bosses, she has always signaled her willingness to cut a deal. Meanwhile, rather than challenge the rest of the labor leaders to mobilize against the Stella bosses’ union busting moves, she has instead served to keep the struggle isolated by promoting a hopelessly passive consumer boycott, reliance on the courts and support for Democratic Party politicians.
Scandalously, Alston refused to provide official Local 50 support for a rally organized by the Stella Workers Solidarity Committee to commemorate the one year anniversary of the strike. Instead, while the bosses were openly preparing for a shutdown, Alston’s message to both the bosses and the working class public was that the union would just rely on the law and stood ready to make “an accommodation [with the owners] that will keep Stella D’oro in New York and restore the company’s fortunes” (blog.aflcio.org/2009/07/16/union-challenges-stella-doro-announced-shutdown/). In fact, when planning for the Stella D’oro contingent for the Labor Day parade, Alston insisted that the union would not allow slogans against concessions in the parade!
Alston’s offer of concessions was a terrible display of weakness that only encouraged the bosses to continue their attacks. The company’s main goal was to make Stella D’oro a non-union operation. It had already shown that it wasn’t interested in sitting down at the table with the union, not even to bargain over concessions! All along, far from raising a battle cry for other labor unions join the fight, she failed to even fight for her own union to mobilize all its members and resources in the struggle (for more on the conduct of the strike, see our earlier statement Labor Must Wage An All-Out Fight to Keep Stella D’oro Open.)
Of course, this awful record is far from unique to Local 50 leaders. The union leaders generally enjoy privileged positions as highly paid go-betweens who deal with management while the ranks remain passive bystanders. The labor bureaucracy embraces working within capitalist limits and depending on friendly relations with the Democratic Party. Even now, when the crisis means layoffs and shutdowns of businesses across the country, they continue to avoid strikes or other actions where the workers could get out from their control. They generally fear the independent mobilization of the working class.
Yet the final result of any particular struggle between any sector of the capitalist class and the working class depends on whether the workers can wield such power that the bosses fear the consequences of not conceding to the workers’ demands. And that points to the only real way to keep the plant open and score a sorely needed victory.
The Stella D’oro workers’ struggle has already won the sympathy and feelings of solidarity of broader layers of workers. Aided by other working-class supporters, Stella workers have to find ways to spark greater numbers into action. There is no more time to waste. The old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” must now, finally, be put into practice. The biggest possible fight has to be prepared. The most militant workers have to convince their fellow workers to join with them and fight for the unions throw their full resources into the struggle to save workers jobs and wages at Stella D’oro: Fight Union-Busting! Stop the Sale! Keep Stella D’oro in the Bronx!
The workers at the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago faced a company aiming to move away to set up a non-union shop. They occupied their factory for a week last December to stop the bosses from removing machinery and won back pay and benefits. While their occupation did not aim to stop the factory’s closure, it gained such attention that a new owner purchased the company and promised to rehire the workers. The Republic workers’ bold act of occupying the plant captured the imagination of workers across the U.S., and even internationally (see our full statement on the Republic struggle)
Since then, their action has been looked on as a model for other struggles, including at Stella D’oro. But the Republic workers did not find a solution to their factory’s closing and as of now, while the factory has a new owner, few of the workers have been rehired. But the final result of a long and hard fought battle of workers who occupied another factory in a whole other part of the world does point to an answer: the occupation of the Zanon ceramics factory in Neuquén, Argentina. There, the provincial government was forced to take responsibility for keeping the plant open. The key there was that many other unions had joined the fight and the capitalist politicians knew that if they did not take this unusual measure, that the fight would only escalate further (a good summary description of this struggle can be found at www.ft-ci.org/article.php3?id_article=2080).
Factory occupations and other militant tactics to fight factory closings and other capitalist attacks will be seen as more necessary in the near future by greater numbers of workers in the U.S. Workers who never dreamed of being active will find themselves engaged in battles. The Stella D’oro workers and other workers who want to fight back face this challenge today.
We revolutionary socialist workers of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) have always argued against endorsing any capitalist politicians, as part of our perspective for mobilizing the working class in a struggle against the entire capitalist system. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are big capitalist parties that are inherently anti-working class. The Democrats, however, sometimes pretend to be “Friends of Labor.”
Many New York unions have endorsed Democratic Party candidate William Thompson, the current City Comptroller, in his bid for mayor against Bloomberg. Thompson has claimed to support the Stella struggle, and in fact attempted to get the Pennsylvania legislature to disinvest in Brynwood as punishment for their scheme to close the Bronx plant. But in his actual campaign here in New York, he has had tons of opportunities to publicize the plight of the Local 50 workers, including TV and newspaper interviews, and he hasn’t raised a peep. He will show up as a supporter of Stella D’oro workers because so far it seems to him to be a cheap way to gain labor votes in the capitalist political game.
There are other local politicians professing support to the struggle too. The Democratic-controlled City Council, for example, passed an absolutely toothless resolution expressing support for Stella workers keeping their jobs. They should all be challenged now, before it is to late, to do more than make promises at photo opportunities.
Most of the time Democratic politicians betray their promises to workers as easily as they breathe. The notion that politicians can be convinced to do anything substantial on behalf of workers by being polite and promising them votes has been disproved time and again. But workers can make serious demands on the politicians and force their hand if the demands are backed up by mass action. As an urgent measure, workers should demand that these politicians who claim to support our side on imminent plant closure call for a city government takeover of the plant, rather than allowing it to close.
Under situations of great pressure, if workers use a strategy of mass action such as we have described, capitalist politicians at all levels can be forced to institute measures that at least temporarily benefit workers. The politicians’ motive is always just to calm things down. They want to squash independent action by the working class, and certainly not to provide lasting solutions that would cut into profit-making. However, such temporary victories can pave the way for even greater struggles and more lasting solutions.
Support for capitalist parties like the Republicans and Democrats is a losing strategy for workers. Yet workers are right to look for a political answer to the economic and social crises of our times. Many workers, Black, white, Latino and immigrant, rallied to the hope that the election of Barack Obama as President would see their interests put first. Instead they have seen Wall Street bailed out to the tune of thirteen trillion dollars and the imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan continued, while the Democrats’ promises of pro-union legislation and universal healthcare have languished (see our statement Obama: Capitalist Champion).
The difficult truth is that the current economic crisis will inevitably worsen. The working class will learn that it has no choice to but to fight back with strikes and protests to defend itself. And with business closings and layoffs growing, calls for government solutions to the economic crisis will inevitably grow. The anarchy of capitalism’s pursuit of private profit is already recognized by many as having driven the economy into its current state: an economic plan that answers the needs of the working class is clearly needed.
Under these conditions, a demand that the Obama administration nationalize all union-busting and failing companies could find growing support in the working class. The demand would in particular offer an immediate answer to workers who want to fight to defend their wages and working conditions and keep factories open even when their owners face bankruptcy. And most importantly, the experience of the mass struggle for nationalization in the working class’s interests would teach growing numbers of workers the revolutionary lesson that the current government and state serve the capitalists. If nationalization is to be achieved and really serve workers’ interests, the working class will have to seize power and build its own government and state.
Sooner or later mass working-class struggles will break out. When these struggles occur, it will mean not only fighting the capitalist bosses but the capitalist politicians and the union bureaucrats who support them, and inevitably collude to keep struggles well under control at the expense of the working class. That is why today, while workers must make demands on our union leaders, and even the so-called “Friends of Labor” in the Democratic Party, workers must also strive to find an alternative political perspective and leadership that will not sell them out like the capitalist politicians and labor leaders inevitably do.
In fact, the bosses and politicians are actually responsible for the economic crisis because they run a system under which such crisis is inevitable. And the union leaders are profoundly responsible for going along with them and restraining the working class from finding an independent path. Economic crisis is not only inevitable as long as capitalism exists: the system is now in such profound decay that a full-blown depression cannot be avoided for much longer. Therefore we in the League for the Revolutionary Party argue openly for revolutionary socialism as the only alternative to a bleak capitalist future.
The policies and demands we advocate for the Stella D’oro struggle can lead to an immediate victory if they are adopted. However, as revolutionary socialist workers, we also hope to convince our fellow workers of the need for socialist revolution. It is possible to win demands for nationalization to save jobs and whole industries under capitalism. Yet as important as such victories will be, nationalization under capitalism does not represent the long- term solution that we need. Nationalized factories would still function as part of the cutthroat capitalist profit system. And the capitalist government and state would always be looking to advance the interests of the bosses against the workers. But through big struggles like a fight for nationalization, workers can get a better sense of their own class power. They will learn through experience that the working class has great power and that capitalism can and must be overturned.
The potential of nationalized industry to not only save jobs but also plan production in the interests of the broad masses of people can actually only be realized when capitalism is overthrown. It will take a revolutionary seizure of state power by the working class and its allies to make the whole transition to a planned economy possible. The capitalist state must be replaced by a workers’ state, which will be able to carry out a wide range of measures to transform society and build toward socialism. If we don’t want economic depression, as well as the racism, joblessness, and imperialist wars that are an unavoidable product of capitalism, we are going to have to fight for socialist revolution. Genuine socialism will provide peace and prosperity for all and represents the opposite of life under capitalism, which is based on exploitation of the working class by the ruling class – as well as the imperialist rule over oppressed nations. To make the socialist future possible, we urge workers and youth who are already opposed to capitalism to join together with us now. We have to build the beginnings of the revolutionary party leadership that our class needs.