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Unions did not kill Twinkies, but they’ll take the fall

Good-bye, Twinkies.

To be honest, the demise of Twinkies, Ho-Hos, Ding-Dongs and Wonder Bread doesn’t seem like a tragedy for my taste buds. Those are the foods of my childhood. It’s the loss of 18,500 jobs that breaks my heart: 18,500 families across the United States at 33 plants, including one here in Kansas City, whose livelihoods are gone.

Hostess Brands Inc., the privately held company manufacturing the sugary snacks, announced it was filing a motion with U.S. Bankruptcy Court Friday to shut down operations and sell off its brands. The company had set a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline for striking employees to go back to work.

Based in Irving, Tex., Hostess has been through bankruptcy twice in the last 10 years and just this past January had filed for Chapter 11 protection.

The union — in this case it’s the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union — will get blamed for the company closing its doors. It was the union that refused to accept the 27 to 32 percent cuts in wages and benefits offered by management at the last contract talks.

Sally Field accepts the Academy Award for her iconic role in “Norma Rae,” a movie whose pro-union message no longer resonates. (Fred Prouser – Reuters)

Unions, of course, were formed to fight for the rights of workers and to protect them from abuses by management, I explained to my 14-year-old son while driving him to school. I even brought up the 1979 filmNorma Rae.”

“Workers got pissed off because of lousy working conditions,” he told me, so he did learn something in social studies last year.

I freely admit to being pro-union, an unpopular stance these days, but I was raised to believe in them. My dad was a mailman for 33 years and a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers. One of my most vivid memories is the phone call from the treasurer of the NALC in Washington, D.C., telling me I had won one of their 15 annual scholarships. That money meant I could attend the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

I also saw the downside of unions as I was growing up. Mailmen were prohibited from striking by federal law, though I vaguely remember talk of going against it at one point and my dad’s quandary over what to do if it came to that. But my grandfather worked for Williams Brothers Pipeline in Kansas City, Kan., and he did go on strike, sometimes for weeks.

And I do remember the conversation we had when he explained he had to go on strike because that’s how the majority of the members in the union voted. But the pay raise they were fighting for? He said it would never make up for the days and weeks of lost wages from the strike.

Now we have 18,500 workers without a job, who lost the game of chicken they were playing with management.

“Wouldn’t a 30 percent cut be better than 100 percent?” my son asked me.

He has a point. He’s also seen it, as my husband, a software developer, has accepted pay cuts at new positions after layoffs. “I’d rather have lower pay than no pay,” he says.

I’ve joked that IT professionals need a union, but the labor movement has fallen out of favor. Norma Rae would probably be booed if she stood up with her “Union” sign now. As my fellow She The People writer Donna Trussell said, “Unions clung to an organizational model more suited to a 19th-century economy than the one we have now. That’s why they’ve lost so many members. When unions protect only their own, and leave over 90 percent of the workforce twisting in the wind, they will inspire more envy than support. Adapt or die.”

But they’re not adapting. And with right-to-work states, companies can simply move elsewhere. One Facebook friend told me how her family ended up in Tennessee from Detroit when the automotive supply company that employed her father got tired of union demands and moved to a right-to-work state.

I hate to see unions losing the power to fight for the worker. The pendulum will have to swing far to the other side — as employees suffer — before they’ll band together again.

That day may come sooner rather than later. A small group of employees at Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, is planning a walkout on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

We can live without Twinkies. But we need those jobs. And we need some sort of organization that can fight for all workers.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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