Two years ago, Juan Torres, 50, enjoyed his job as a machine operator at the Stella D’oro cookie factory in Kingsbridge. He could provide his children with simple purchases like new clothes for school and tickets to Great Adventure, and his family with trips to the Dominican Republic, where he was born.
But this year, for the first time, Torres had to tell his children that none of that would be possible.
Torres, who has lived in University Heights since he was 8 is one of more than 130 Stella D’oro union employees who have been on strike for the past nine months. Every day, rain or shine, they stand at the picket line.
After 15 years of working at Stella D’oro, Torres is now living on unemployment benefits and may file for bankruptcy. His credit cards are maxed out, and even though his wife, who was laid off last year, now receives food stamps, they sometimes struggle to buy food.
Torres began working at Stella D’oro in 1993 in sanitation, making $11 an hour. At the time, he and his wife had a 1-year-old son, Juan, Jr., and a one-month-old daughter, Lourdes. The young father was happy to find a good paying job, and he spent the next several years working his way up to machine cleaner and then to machine operator.
Before the strike, Torres had health insurance (paid for by Stella D’oro), paid sick time and four weeks of vacation. He estimates that he made about $48,000 a year, including overtime.
“[The salary] was good enough to raise a family,” Torres said.
Last year, Torres’ union, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 50, began a heated negotiation with Brynwood Partners, a private equity firm that bought Stella D’oro in 2006. In May 2008, Brynwood presented workers with a new contract to replace the existing five-year contract that was going to expire in July 2008.
The new contract included the most radical changes that Torres had ever seen. No more paid sick or vacation time. No more overtime. Wages would be slashed by more than 20 percent over the next five years. And employees would have to contribute 20 percent of health care insurance costs.
The news was a surprise to Torres and his co-workers. In 2006 and 2007, during company parties, Torres said that Stella D’oro representatives told employees that the company was doing well.
Torres says that production increased, and in 2007 he worked more overtime than he did in the previous three years.
“They said that people had worked hard,” Torres said.
George Kahssay, a Stella D’oro foreman, who has worked at the factory for 20 years, said the company bought new machines and robots, expanded its family-size products, and opened new contracts with wholesale distributors like BJ’s and Costco.
But Torres had his suspicions that Brynwood was keeping information from employees. Torres and his co-workers began seeing new workers from other factories observe workers at Stella D’oro. He says he saw cars in the company parking lot with license plates from as far away as Massachusetts.
“They [had] a plan to push everyone out,” Torres said. “I believe this.”
When Torres learned of Brynwood’s proposal, he prepared for the worst. For the next couple of months, he saved as much money as he could. But he never imagined that the strike would last so long. He said the last strike in the 1990s only lasted five weeks before the union and representatives from Kraft, then owner of Stella D’oro, negotiated a contract.
On August 27, 2008, Torres and his co-workers went on strike.
In a statement, Brynwood Partners said that Stella D’oro was “an unprofitable and shrinking business” when it was purchased in January 2006. “High labor costs” was one of “the problems” that the company tried to address. Brynwood said that wage reductions would only affect some of the workers, and they believe their proposal would fairly compensate workers and that the union has been unreasonable with its demands.
But local activists agree that Brynwood is the one making the unfair demands. Father Joseph Girone of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in University Heights, where several Stella D’Oro workers are members, is asking his congregation to support the workers by boycotting Stella D’oro products. “The gospel says the worker is worth his wage,” said Fr. Girone. “[Brynwood was] trying to make a profit on the back of workers in a really unreasonable way. It’s not just about production.”
Torres and Kahssay don’t know how much revenue the company made since 2006. According to them, after Brynwood purchased Stella D’oro from Kraft, the company stopped meeting with staff to review sales and revenue data.
Torres and his co-workers say they just want their old contract and their old jobs back.
“I’m depressed,” said Mayra Alfonseca, a packager at Stella D’oro. “I like my job.”
“Where are we gonna look for another job?” said Torres.
Before the strike, Torres dreamed of paying for college for his children, now he’s not sure what will happen. In October, Torres’ unemployment will run out, and this summer, his son will need to work to help the family with expenses.
Until the union is ready to “engage in some real bargaining over the needed labor contract changes, management will continue its steady expansion of operations and growth of the replacement workforce,” said Brynwood in a statement.
Local 50 did not respond to inquiries for this article.
Torres is determined to strike for as long as he can, though he doesn’t know how much longer he can afford it.
“It’s very hard when you go home and your wife asks every day, ‘what happened?’” Torres said. “This company knows what they are doing. In the end, they make the community more poor. They are destroying lives. They are destroying families.”