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KANSAS CITY--America lost one of its iconic brands recently when Hostess, maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Wonder Bread, and other staples of postwar Middle America, closed up shop.
The announcement was an occasion for wags to litter the Internet with jokes about the Twinkie, a pathetic industrial confection that couldn't be more out of step with our artisanal, gourmet tastes.
But there was another curious aspect to the story: Hostess workers were still represented by several labor unions, and one of them, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, had gone on strike. The failure of management and the bakers union to reach an agreement, it appears, precipitated the closing of the company and the loss of 18,000 jobs.
The Twinkie and the labor union, going down together--the story fitted perfectly into a pat journalistic narrative in which unions have done their work (thanks for the eight-hour day, folks!) but now must exit the historical stage.
Unfortunately, reality is not quite so simple.
Recently, we learned--from the Wall Street Journal, no less--that the company had diverted payments it was supposed to make to the employee pension fund into other operating accounts. This, at a time when finances were tight and management nevertheless decided to give itself more bonuses and salary raises.
This is the new America: Bonuses and stock options for the top brass, pink slips and blame for the working class. Most Hostess employees had taken steep pay cuts over the last few years. One of the major reasons the bakers union went on strike was that the company was not honoring prior pension agreements.
The version we got from the headlines was a little different: Union refuses to negotiate, forces 80-plus-year old company to shut down.
Don't be mistaken. What happened at Hostess is part of a long, protracted shift in the American workplace. Companies use any means at their disposal, including bankruptcy reorganization, to get rid of unions. Meanwhile, right-wing think tanks and pundits demonize union members as freeloaders and thugs. It has been a decades-long project, and it's been incredibly successful.