No Contract, No Cookies: Is This the Way a Country Crumbles?

Isn't a 'jobless recovery' as preposterous as a fetus-less pregnancy? We've got a bloody pile-up at the intersection of Wall Street and Main Street, where reality collides with such corporate conceits. And it's the workers who wind up on life support, while the suits speed away from the wreckage undented and undaunted. Back to the bat cave, to plot the next leveraged buyout!

The new HBO documentary, "No Contract No Cookies: The Stella D’Oro Strike," premiering on HBO2 tonight at 8pm, tells the story of a beloved Bronx bakery, founded by Italian immigrants in 1932, that now lies shuttered, like so many factories all over America. The saga of how the company went from a thriving family-owned enterprise to a gutted equity fund acquisition is a success story only if you're rooting for our modern day robber barons. For the dwindling middle class and the unwashed masses, it's an American tragedy that's being repeated all over the country.

"No Contract No Cookies" puts a poignant face--or 138 faces, to be precise--on the massacre of manufacturing jobs that CEOs routinely commit in the name of prosperity. At the Stella D'Oro factory, folks from 22 different countries worked convivially alongside New York natives and gained a foothold in the American middle class, only to be kicked off the ladder when Brynwood Partners, a private equity fund, bought the company. In 2008, when the workers' contract expired, Brynwood demanded a 30% pay cut.

Brynwood claimed, as the New York Times' Jennifer 8 Lee reported at the time, "that the hourly wages of $18 to $22 an hour and nine weeks of paid leave made the factory unprofitable," and demanded "significant reductions in wages and benefits in order to move the factory to profitability."

Filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill documented the 11-month strike that ensued, capturing the comraderie of the close-knit workers who hailed from wildly different backgrounds but shared the belief that their solid work ethic would lay the foundation for a decent future for themselves and their families, as it would have in the past.

But with our economy now founded on fictitious, bubble-based fortunes and sleazy sleights of hand, those who actually make--or in this case, bake--anything, are expected to accept stagnating or even declining wages even while the affluent few do better than ever. Middle class workers who banked on promised pensions and health care are now portrayed as pariahs and parasites, while the fraudsters who crashed our economy continue to call all the shots, as Frank Rich laments in his scathingNew York debut.

Brynwood refused to provide the union with financial statements to document its claims that the cuts were needed, and was found guilty of bargaining in bad faith. A federal judge ruled that the workers were entitled to their jobs, their pay, and their benefits, and ordered Brynwood to reinstate the workers.

So, the company invited the workers back and promptly announced that it would close the factory. Stella D'Oro was sold to a company named Lance, which shut the factory and moved operations to a non-union factory in Ohio where labor's a lot cheaper. Mission accomplished! Most of the former Stella D'Oro workers remain unemployed; some found a job at another bakery, only to be laid off again a few months later.

When will we stop lionizing business and demonizing labor? GOP hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain tout their supposed business acumen as proof that they've got the right stuff to steer our economy out of the ditch. But, honestly, if you've built your financial empire by buying up companies and then driving the workers who are the backbone of those companies right into that ditch, i.e., laying off laborers to boost shareholder profits, why doesn't that qualify you as a job killer?

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned that "private equity's wealth extraction business model" creates a "hollow economy." We don't need a CEO in the White House; America is a nation, not a business. And a country where business owners can't figure out how to compensate themselves and their shareholders without screwing their workers is, simply, a country that doesn't work. "No Cookies No Contract" puts a face on the collateral damage brought to us by the Wall Street wizards who'll tell you they're conjuring up value. Value for who?

No demonizing labor

What struck me about this documentary was the comments made by the workers at the very end of the film. I've lost jobs before too and I realize what an emotional time that can be. But what struck me is that these folks felt like this country, or more specifically this government - OWED THEM. I think we'd all be better off if we realized that this country was founded on the promise of OPPORTUNITY, not a guarantee of present and future success. Moreover, 9 weeks of leave for every employee is simply a bad business model. I work for a company that gives 3-5 year workers up to 5-6 weeks of PTO, and long-term employees have even more. I can tell you that it definitely impacts our ability to get decisions made and projects completed on-time when there is always someone on the team who isn't in the office. For a small baking company, it has to be even worse. Now, the company was wrong not to bargain fairly, for sure. But corporations do have a right to make money. And these jobs at least stayed in America. I would have liked to have seen some of these employees band together and perhaps create a new cookie company rather than feel as if it's not union or government provided, then woe is me. Yes, it's hard to lose a job. But the best of us can pick ourselves up and see an opportunity to at least TRY.