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A Bittersweet Win for Former N.Y. Bakery Workers

September 10, 2010
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Workers who lost their jobs when Stella D’oro Biscuit Co. shuttered its New York plant last year could get millions in back pay and benefits as a result of a recent decision handed down by the National Labor Relations Board.

The 2-1 ruling by a three-member panel affirmed the June 2009 decision of an administrative law judge, which stated that Stella D’oro violated federal labor law when it refused to furnish detailed financial statements to the workers’ union to back up claims that it needed contract concessions in order to survive. The company’s “unlawful refusal to provide the union with requested relevant information precluded a lawful bargaining impasse,” the majority wrote in its decision.

The ruling confirms that the 136 workers were driven to embark on a yearlong strike by the company, and orders Stella D’oro to fork over back pay, with interest, as well as benefits for the two-month period after the workers offered to return to the job in May 2009, and before the company took them back in July.

Though the decision is a victory for the workers, it comes too late to help them get their jobs back. The plant closed in October, after Brynwood Partners, the private equity firm that bought Stella D’oro from Kraft Foods in 2006, announced it had sold the company to North Carolina-based Lance Inc., which moved the operations to a nonunion factory in Ashland, Ohio.

“You can’t put the egg back together, but you can make the employer pay for breaking the egg,” said Louie Nikolaidis, the attorney for the workers’ union, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 50.

Nikolaidis said a precise amount owed still needs to be calculated by the NLRB, but that back pay and contributions to the workers’ health and pension funds could total between $3 million and $4 million.

David Leach, deputy regional attorney for the NLRB, said Stella D’oro could still appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but noted that it had agreed to set aside money for back pay and benefits in case it lost the case.

“There will be an economic benefit of some amount to the workers,” he said. “That’s unfortunately all we’ve got, but we can certainly pursue that and we will.”

An attorney for Stella D’oro, Mark Jacoby, said he had yet to speak to his client and could not comment on whether the company would appeal the decision.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jon Alpert is working on a documentary about the yearlong strike for HBO. Union lawyer Nikolaidis said the film will likely show that despite losing their jobs, the workers have few regrets because the private equity owners sought concessions that would have slashed wages, benefits, sick leave and vacation time. The wage cuts alone, the union contends, would’ve lowered pay scales to $13 an hour from $18.

“Even after the strike, even after they closed the plant, the workers still said they would have done it over again,” Nikolaidis said. “Brynwood didn’t give them a choice.”  

Filed by Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

 

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