By: Press Release | Sidney Hillman Foundation
New Yorker writer Ian Frazier has won the March Sidney Award for his account of the strike at the Stella D’oro biscuit factory and its subsequent closure after being a fixture in the Bronx since 1930.
In August 2008, all 134 Stella D’oro workers went on strike to protest the wage and benefit cuts demanded by management. With these cuts, many of the workers would no longer be able to afford housing, healthcare, or send their children to college, which previous generations of Stella D’oro workers had been able to do. Management dismissed the workers, reasoning that any job was surely better than none.
The National Labor Relations Board found that the current owner, Brynwood Capital Partners, who purchased the once family-owned company from RJR Nabisco/Kraft in 2006, had negotiated in bad faith, and ordered the strikers back to work. But rather than reinstate the 134 workers, Brynwood, a Connecticut-based private equity firm, sold Stella D’oro to the notoriously anti-union Lance, Inc., which relocated the plant to Ashland, Ohio without rehiring any of the original workers.
“The story of the Stella D’oro strike illustrates the challenges facing the labor movement when confronted with private equity firms that have no stake in preserving communities or running successful businesses for the long haul,” said Hillman judge Lindsay Beyerstein. “The Stella D’oro workers won the strike, but they still lost their jobs.”
During the 60 years that Stella D’oro was family-owned, the management had always worked out its differences with the union. RJR Nabisco bought the company at its peak, but once Stella D’oro became part of its giant corporate structure, decisions were made which devalued the product like switching to cheaper and non-kosher ingredients. By the time Brynwood bought it, it was considered an underperforming, “orphan” brand.
Furthermore, Frazier observes that the level inequality that enables Brynwood to promise a 28% return to its investors, while expecting Stella D’oro workers to give up their dreams of sending their children to college, seemed to make meaningful cooperation between the two sides impossible.
Ian Frazier is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. He has been contributing to the magazine since 1974.
The Sidney Hillman Foundation honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Judges are Rose Arce, Hendrik Hertzberg, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Harold Meyerson, Susan Meiselas, and Lindsay Beyerstein.
The Sidney Award is given once a month to an outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism, by the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which also awards the annual Hillman Prizes every spring. Winners of the Sidney receive a certificate designed by New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Sorel, a $500 honorarium and a bottle of union-made wine.
Read an interview with Frazier about the history of the once family-owned Stella D’oro factory, the risks of negotiating with private equity firms, and why unions are losing their footing in this era of rising income inequality.