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Posted at 12:04 PM ET, 11/19/2012

What the Twinkie’s demise tells us

As you may have heard, the Twinkie may soon be no more — Hostess, the maker of the iconic snack, is closing its plants and letting around 18,000 workers go, after the bakers’ union announced a national strike.

The company is blaming the union, and much of the insta-Twitter-reaction from the right seems to agree. But more careful commentatary tells a more complex tale, one that you’d think unions and workers would want to tell.

As the New Yorker’s James Suroweicki explains, the company had hoped to use bankruptcy as a way to slash workers’ wages and benefits, leading the union to go on strike. The company says this is forcing it to go out of business, and blames union greed for its demise. But Surowiecki notes that the company had been losing money and market share for years, and that its core problem was not high wages or pensions; it’s that the market for its products changed, and the company failed to keep pace.

As Surowiecki points out, workers are getting scapegoated for company failings — a familiar refrain. And labor needs to push back on the larger idea that it’s unreasonable for workers to demand pensions and other guarantors of economic security:

It was once taken for granted that an industrial worker who worked for a big company for many years would get a solid middle-class lifestlye, and would be taken care of in retirement. Today, that concept seems to many like a relic. Just as Wonder Bread does.

Paul Krugman goes bigger, and links the Twinkie story to the present battle over the fiscal cliff and whether to raise taxes on the wealthy:

we’ve forgotten something important — namely, that economic justice and economic growth aren’t incompatible. America in the 1950s made the rich pay their fair share; it gave workers the power to bargain for decent wages and benefits; yet contrary to right-wing propaganda then and now, it prospered. And we can do that again.

One of the primary messages of the conservative movement in the last few decades is that the push for economic fairness is a major threat to overall prosperity — as if economic unfairness and inequality are necessary by-products of growth, and doing something about those things risks tampering with the natural economic order of things.

The Twinkie is instantly recognizable to millions of Americans, and this story is an attention grabber. So organized labor has an opportunity to seize on public attention to tell a broader story on its own terms about workers rights, the scapegoating of employees for company failings, and the real causes of the decline of economic security for the middle class. And I suspect you’ll be hearing more from the major unions along these lines soon enough.

******************************************

UPDATE: Via Steve Benen, Forbes had a good piece on what really happened here, including this:

Hostess has been sold at least three times since the 1980s, racking up debt and shedding profitable assets along the way with each successive merger. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2004, and again in 2011. Little thought was given to the line of products, which, frankly, began to seem a bit dated in the age of the gourmet cupcake...
As if all this were not enough, Hostess Brands’ management gave themselves several raises, all the while complaining that the workers who actually produced the products that made the firm what money it did earn were grossly overpaid relative to the company’s increasingly dismal financial position.

By  |  12:04 PM ET, 11/19/2012

 
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