Ward: A heavy toll for Hostess and members of its bakers union
By Jeff Ward For The Courier-News November 25, 2012 5:16PM
FILE - This Jan. 10, 2012 file photo shows Hostess Twinkies in New York. Twinkies first came onto the scene in 1930 and contained real fruit until rationing during World War II led to the vanilla cream Twinkie. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)
Updated: December 27, 2012 6:10AM
I know you all love to label me with the “L” word (liberal), but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only am I willing to take on the hippies (local left-wing activists), but you’re about to discover just how much I’ve come to loath labor unions.
Those collectives certainly served a gallant purpose in their day, but instead of making things better, they’ve supplanted the unholy corporate bosses they were intended to resist. And there’s no better example of this than the Hostess company’s recent semi-untimely demise.
I understand you left-leaning readers want to blame management for the company’s closure, and there is something — but not much — to be said for that hypothesis.
It’s true that Hostess filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004 and 2012, and the privately held company has gone through CEOs faster than Lady Gaga goes through wigs. And yes, management massively bumping their salaries right in the middle of tense labor negotiations didn’t help matters any.
But I firmly believe those late raises were a combination of a golden parachute ploy and a means of inciting the bakers union into holding their ground. I’m convinced the owners wanted an excuse to get out from under a rapidly fading concern.
Because, in the end, Hostess’ ultimate flaw was an inability to adapt. While other snack food purveyors saw the numbers on the scale, the Twinkie maker continued operating as if the generally obese American public would never alter their eating habits.
So while they insisted upon selling the same old sugary snacks, Coke Zero, Vitamin Water, low-fat Oreos and low-fat yogurt were literally eating into their market share. Take a short stroll down that Jewel bread aisle and you’ll note that it’s dominated by health-conscious multigrain brands.
No one buys Wonder Bread any more.
So while you can certainly blame management for the failure to foresee a trend, that ain’t a mortal sin. It happens every day. When was the last time you used a Palm PDA? And by the time these stressed companies realize it, it’s usually too late.
Hostess had two options. Seriously reduce costs or, like Zenith TV, sell the brand to a group that could make it work. They chose the former and turned to their unions for help. And the fact that the Teamsters quickly agreed to the concessions really oughta tell you something.
That group ain’t exactly known for their “congeniality.”
But enter the union bakers, who members were already making an artificially inflated $19 an hour — not including pension and health care benefits. When they refused to shoulder 17 percent of their health care costs and consider an 8 percent salary cut, the owners decided to sell the brand.
And it’s because that union chose so poorly that 18,500 Hostess workers are now out of work. How many of us would kill for $17.50 an hour plus benefits and a pension? As my good friend and “Left, Right and You” radio co-host Tim Elenz said, “At what point does a company turn to a union and say ‘I’m done doing business with you?’ ”
We love to say we hate socialism, but then we start shrieking whenever the market finally prevails — and it always does. Standing squarely on the shoulders of our proud capitalist tradition, Hostess decided it could make more money by closing the company.
Don’t try to tell me you’d do anything differently either. When selling your grandmother’s broach on eBay, do you always take the lowest bid? When you have your eye on that rare Pez dispenser, do you, out of the goodness of your heart, add 65 percent to your winning tally?
I thought so.
Both Darwin and capitalism demand the survival of the fittest. The union demanded something the market could not bear, and that self-destructive insanity cost a whole lot of people their jobs.
But the thing that really bothers me is that while management and the union were bickering like a bunch of middle-schoolers, the real losers are the folks like Kathy Lipprandt and A.J. Galvin, who valiantly manned that Elgin Hostess Thrift Shop counter until the very end.
Through no fault of their own, they’re out of a job. Those Elgin venues where customers are greeted by their first names are getting even rarer.
And I place the blame for Hostess’ not-quite-yet-necessary demise squarely on the selfish and short-sighted bakers union. They knew the company was in distress and, lacking any sense of the realities the rest of us regularly face, they refused to make reasonable concessions and shut the business down just because they could.
And you wonder why I despise labor unions.
You can reach Jeff Ward at