This time last year, 135 mainly immigrant workers at the Stella D’oro biscuit factory in the Bronx – organized in Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) – went on strike and stayed out for nearly eleven months. The workers were fighting against demands by their bosses for huge cuts to wages, health care benefits, and other contract entitlements. The strike ended when a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ruled that Brynwood Partners, the factory owners, had to allow the strikers back to work under their old contract. The bosses allowed the workers back on July 7, but the fight then entered an even more acute stage.
Brynwood not only filed an appeal to the NLRB ruling, but they showed their trump card: they announced that they planned to sell the Stella D’oro operation in October. It would likely go to a buyer who would relocate the business to another state in search of cheap labor. Failing that, they would just close the factory and sell its assets. Either way, the company’s main goal is to smash the unionized workers’ resistance to their demands.
If Brynwood is allowed to get away with shutting down the plant it will be a terrible blow to these union workers and their families. A defeat for workers at Stella D’oro would also encourage other bosses to immediately escalate union-busting attempts and an offensive against wages and working conditions that would hit all workers, union and non-union alike.
The Stella D’oro strikers set an example for all workers of the need for unity; not one union member crossed the picket line! But while the ranks of workers remained loyal, there were basic problems with how the union’s top officials led the strike. Key lessons must be learned if Stella D’oro workers are going to win this new round in the fight.
Most importantly, stopping the usage of scab labor was a critical need for the strike. Local 50 alone did not have the forces to stop the scabs. But the union leaders failed to mobilize the extra support from the rest of the labor movement that was needed to reinforce the picket line and keep the scabs out. Local 50 officials could have made appeals to the city’s unions for mass support – and backed the official appeals by organizing Stella workers to go directly to the ranks of other unions with calls for active solidarity. Citywide rallies sponsored by all the unions and other pro-worker and pro-immigrant organizations could have given extra power to the struggle.
Local 50 leaders, as well as the leaders of the BCTGM International union, did not try to do these kinds of things. Rather than attempt to break the struggle out of its isolation at one factory, they accepted those limits. And the rest of the leaders of the city’s unions played along. This condemned the Stella workers to a long, drawn-out struggle during which workers had to watch scabs come and go from the factory for many months.
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, the union leaders 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. In this case a strike was called, but Local 50 leaders told the ranks to rely on a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board and called for a consumer boycott, rather than fighting to mobilize a broader workers’ struggle.
The NLRB is designed to maintain labor peace so that capitalists can continue to profit from their operations. It sometimes grants partially favorable rulings to unions. In this case, Local 50 got lucky as the NLRB ruling allowed the strikers to return to work. Such a ruling could not have been guaranteed, and the ruling itself hardly ensured that Local 50 would get a good contract with job security. We can plainly see from subsequent events that the opposite was true! The final result of a 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. In this case, the return of Stella D’oro workers to their plant meant that this struggle has been provided one last chance to show its full strength and win its fight.
There are now two precious months to organize a struggle to save the jobs at Stella D’oro. Feelings of sympathy and solidarity with Stella D’oro workers are out there. Aided by other working class supporters, Stella D’oro workers have to find ways to spark greater numbers of workers into action. There is no more time to waste. A major emergency response will be needed to stop the death sentence that Brynwood Partners has passed on this struggle.
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 demand that the unions throw their full resources into the struggle to save workers jobs and wages at Stella D’oro: No Layoffs, No Concessions, No Closure!
The Republic Windows workers 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. They won back pay and benefits but did not stop the closure. But the very act of boldness in occupying the plant occupation electrified the imagination of workers across the U.S., and even internationally (see Lessons of the Republic Windows Factory Occupation for 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. The rise in plant occupations and strikes to fight job loss and closings is already an international phenomenon. In the Chicago case, the Republic workers did not win the kind of solid victory they could have, had there been widespread union support organized for them in advance. As of now, the workers are supposed to be re-employed by the new owner of the plant, but so far, only about 15 have been rehired.
Factory occupations, and other militant tactics to fight the bosses, 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 Republic Windows struggle could have been used to spark a greater struggle and now the Stella D’oro workers face that challenge.
In response to the serious threat of plant closure by Brynwood, Local 50 requested an injunction from the NLRB to stop a sale, at least temporarily. No one can know exactly when and how that injunction will happen. But again workers cannot rely on the NRLB; as a capitalist institution it is fundamentally on the side of the system of private property and profit making. The same must be said about both the Republican and Democratic Party. These are big capitalist parties that are inherently anti-working class at their root. Yet another prong in the union leaders’ failed strategy, not just at Stella D’oro, but also throughout the whole union movement and for many decades, is supporting Democratic Party politicians. The Democrats are the supposed “Friends of Labor.” Reliance on the capitalist courts and giving political endorsements to Democratic Party politicians has led to decades of cutbacks, layoffs, and the dramatic weakening of the unions – even before the recent drastic blows to the economy.
In the case of Stella D’oro, there are local politicians professing support to the struggle; they should be challenged to do more than make promises. When push comes to shove, will these Democratic politicians let Stella D’oro close, or will they take whatever action is necessary to keep it open?
Part of the answer can be found at the union website, which contains a special page on Stella D’oro (stelladorostrike2008.com). The union posted an article in July. (“Cookie’s crumbling at Stella plant: Ex-strikers, pols hope to keep company from scrapping facility,” Mike Jaccarino, July 14) which stated, “Local officials are scrambling to convince the factory owners ... to reconsider its decision to close. ‘Right now, the short-term plan is to really reach out to Brynwood and talk some sense into them and get them to stay here,’ said John DeSio, spokesman for Borough President Ruben Diaz.”
But later the article notes that at the same time DeSio said that “if the plant closes, ‘We have programs like job training and job placement and workforce development we do here and at the Bronx Overall Economic Development.’” For sure Diaz, and the rest of the politicians, are ready to fold. Most of the time Democratic politicians betray their promises to workers as easily as they breathe.
But workers can prepare to make serious demands on the politicians that can force their hand. Workers should seriously consider a tactical demand on these politicians who claim to support our side on imminent plant closure. Workers can demand that these politicians call for a city government takeover of the plant, rather than allowing it to close. Under situations of great pressure, capitalist politicians at all levels can be forced to institute measures that at least temporarily benefit workers. But their 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.
Reliance on capitalist institutions like the NLRB and 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. Workers are also right to want the government to defend their jobs and other rights, and not just at the local level. Clearly the assault on workers’ rights at Stella D’oro is part of the overall catastrophe facing workers, so making a common fight against plant closures and layoffs nationally makes sense. While the Republic factory occupation immediately captured national attention, the Stella D’oro struggle was not that widely known for many months, but that is no longer the case. It has now grabbed media and other public attention on a national basis.
As one small example of this, BCTGM Labor News reported that Representative Elliot Engel recently made a statement on the floor of the House of Representatives calling on Brynwood Partners to “stop the madness,” in reference to their threat to shut the plant.
Stella D’oro workers now have to be aware of their chance at the national spotlight and use it in the most effective political way. The best way to spread the struggle at Stella D’oro as far and wide as possible would be by championing a common demand that workers can rally around across the country. Under the surface many many workers, union and non-union, immigrant and U.S. born, are looking for a way to fight back against the worsening conditions all over. Stella D’oro workers who already see the need to take things beyond the Bronx and New York should join with us in promoting a campaign for the nationalization of all union-busting and failing industries.
Last year, workers across the country paid close attention when now President Obama advocated corporate bailouts. Once in office, his new administration proceeded to go even further in terms of bailing out the bosses. (See Obama: Capitalist Champion). Workers all over the country are now getting even angrier as more time passes and joblessness increases with no end in sight. A demand that the Obama Administration nationalize all failing and union-busting industries would find support in the working class. Whether that support could really ignite a wider fightback in the short run, we cannot know without trying. But in any case, if Stella D’oro workers can expand their fight against the closure in the Bronx into a public stance for nationalization of all union-busting and failing industries, they would be showing other workers a way to fight back that is desperately needed. It would be a real step toward showing the way forward for the working class.
Sooner or later sizable 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 while today workers must make demands on our union leaders, and even the so-called “Friends of Labor” in the Democratic Party, workers have to strive to find an alternative political view and political leadership that will not sell them out like the capitalist politicians and labor leaders inevitably do.
In fact, the capitalist bosses and politicians are actually responsible for the economic crisis because they defend 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. And it will get worse. 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 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 much more about the nature and severe limitations of the system we live under.
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 wars that are inherent in capitalist imperialism, 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.