As Twinkies Return, Unions Fight For Life

They’re saccharine, cheap, mass-produced and well-preserved. What could be more American than the Twinkie? What could signify bitter economic times better than the sugary treat’s demise?

Sentiments like these echoed nationwide last November, when Hostess announced it would take Twinkies — as well as Sno Balls, Ding Dongs, CupCakes, Wonder bread and Donettes — off market shelves. And on Monday, when a newly structured Hostess reintroduced the cream-filled snack, many Americans regained some optimism about their nation’s chances of fiscal recovery. Others are just happy to savor a national favorite once again.

But the return of Twinkies hardly seems sweet for America’s labor supporters. The baked goods manufacturer — which equity firms C. Dean Metropoulos & Co. and Apollo Global Management purchased in February for $410 million — has left its Irving headquarters for Kansas City, closed seven of its 11 factories, outsourced product distribution and cut ties with unions. And following the sale of Wonder bread to Flowers Foods and that of Drake’s to McKee Foods, the Hostess product line has shrunk, thus further slicing the need for workers.

These changes now leave Hostess with less than the 2,500 employees it housed immediately before its sale. The company has noted plans to hire 1,800 people in the coming months, but snack industry guru Natalie Everett overestimates the manufacturer’s announced statistic. She believes Hostess will only meet 20 to 25 percent of its prior employee count, she said this week.

Tensions between Hostess workers and executives have risen since last January, when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Management blamed the company’s money troubles on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, who pushed for more comprehensive pensions and healthcare policies. Union members rebutted that a boardroom of rotating leadership stifled company innovation. Six different CEOs have helmed Hostess in the past decade. Current head Greg Rayburn added $100 million to employee pension funds last year in exchange for a widespread eight percent pay cut, all while retaining his $1.5 million salary. The company’s nosedive in union representation — from 79 percent of Hostess employees in November to zero percent today — comes as no surprise to labor experts.

“Today’s unions need to figure out where they fit in today’s market,” Lisa Dupnock, a labor relations professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview. “Sure, they have a long tradition of fighting, but members must negotiate their needs better.”

Hostess symbolizes the nation’s ever-declining rapport with unions. Only about 11 percent of working Americans — or 14.3 million of the nation’s workers — belong to such groups, compared to the mid-1950s, when membership reached 35 percent. Private sector unions have lost particular clout, with 7 percent representation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The business world is too fast today, and businesses need to make fast decisions and can’t wait for unions to make up their minds,” Cleveland-based labor lawyer Marc Bloch told NBC News earlier this year. “Unions have to convince their membership that a deal is good or not, and that takes too much time these days.”

The labor movement’s wane is partially an offshoot of right-to-work laws, which now ban mandatory dues at unionized workplaces in 24 states, including Texas. The provision was first enacted in 1947 and has recently gained traction. Two states have added the law over the past two years. Before Michigan and Indiana banned union security agreements last year, no state had adopted such laws since Oklahoma in 2001. More states will likely follow in subsequent years.

In addition, a lack of union presence within ever-globalizing industries like fashion and technology have further weakened many Americans’ collective bargaining abilities. Once-powerful unions like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union have disbanded. Organizations like these were once large enough to threaten employee walkouts and influence executive decisionmaking even at non-unionized companies.

But none of this is to say that union support is dead. Unions still influence, however subtly, worker welfare. Americans who belong to unions earn roughly 20 percent more than those who do not. And union members are more likely to receive pensions, health insurance and paid vacation time than non-union members, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

If there is hope in the private-sector labor movement, it currently lives in Chicago’s and New York’s storefronts, where employees at some McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Sears and Macy’s locations have begun efforts to unionize this past year.

As for Hostess, financial turmoil has recently quieted talks on union issues. But now that the company has regained some footing, perhaps the team behind Twinkies will give collective bargaining another taste.