The Internationalist
November 2010  

Courageous Strikers Could Have Won – Class-Struggle Leadership Key

Lessons of the Battle for Stella D’oro

Internationalist Group, Class Struggle Education Workers and CUNY Internationalist Clubs called for
labor action to stop scab production and get scab products off store shelves.
Internationalist photo

After a struggle lasting more than a year, the 136 mainly immigrant workers at the Stella D’oro bakery in the Bronx, New York lost their jobs October 8, when the owners closed the plant. Fearing last-ditch resistance, Brynwood Partners – the “private equity” (read: speculation and pillage) firm that set out to break the workers’ union – shuttered the factory a day before schedule. Vindictive to the end, it turned a cold shoulder to a buyout bid from Citgo, the U.S. oil company owned by Venezuela, which offered to keep the plant going in the Bronx. Instead, Brynwood sold the brand to a North Carolina-based junk food firm, with cookies under the “Stella D’oro” name to be churned out by a non-union plant in Ohio.

The 15-month struggle at this small factory became a cause célèbre because it symbolized workers’ endurance and courage in defense of the most basic rights of labor. In a period of mounting attacks on unions across the country, this gained national attention. And as the fight grew ever more bitter, conflicting strategies and political conceptions were brought to the fore.

The closing of the plant was a real defeat for the labor movement as a whole. What makes it all the more bitter is it didn’t have to be this way. The Stella D’oro strike could have ended in victory – and the company’s plan to break the union and then to shut down the plant could have been stopped. To do this would have required a massive mobilization of labor’s power. Instead, the labor bureaucrats – from the AFL-CIO and New York Central Labor Council down to the leadership of the Stella workers’ own union – let these courageous workers go it virtually alone. While a few unions (notably teachers and nurses) came out regularly to support rallies and marches, the pattern was labor leaders paying lip service to solidarity while refusing to mobilize against this blatant union-busting.

The reasons for this are fundamentally political: the union leaders’ subordination to the bosses’ rules, institutions and parties. They relied on making photo ops for local “friend of labor” Democrats, and were unwilling to challenge the sacrosanct “right” of the bosses to do as they see fit with “their” property. The Stella D’oro story is a fresh and vivid example of why we need to build a class-struggle leadership: one worthy of the kind of courage and determination shown by these workers, not one of whom crossed the picket lines during eleven months on strike. To unchain workers’ power, we need a leadership committed to forging a revolutionary workers party and toppling the capitalist system – in which “private property” means mass layoffs, with workers thrown out while the bosses get bailed out.

Picket Lines Mean Don’t Cross!

The first shot in Brynwood’s war on labor came when the company pushed out the Teamster drivers. “Picket lines mean don’t cross” – but Local 50 of the bakers union (BCTGM) told its members to cross the lines when the Teamsters struck the plant in 2006. The hard-won principles of labor are crucial to unions’ survival – this was shown again, as the company turned its fire on Local 50’s own members at the plant two years later. Brynwood’s demands for drastic cuts in wages and benefits were rightly seen as a threat and challenge to the livelihood and rights of workers throughout the region.

The Stella D’oro workers began their strike in August 2008 – and stayed solid through eleven months of heat, snow, meager strike benefits and police harassment. Unable to cow or lure strikers into crossing the line, the company brought in scabs. Strikes win when they stop production and distribution.  Given the relatively small size of the striking workforce, it was especially important that NYC unions pitch in by bringing out their members in mass pickets to stop the scabs. (An Internationalist leaflet recalled the building trades’ massive mobilization against the scab Roy Kay firm in 1998; see “Mobilize New York Unions’ Power to Win the Stella D’oro Strike!” in The Internationalist No. 29, Summer 2009.)  A few thousand, or even hundreds, of demonstrators could have jammed the narrow streets of this Bronx neighborhood, galvanizing support among the largely black, Latino and immigrant population in the surrounding area.

Union leaders and many in strike support committee pushed losing “strategy” of consumer boycott rather than militant labor action.
(Photo: jesscarbaez@flickr.com)

But from the beginning, Local 50’s leaders opted for a consumer boycott – asking the public in general to not buy the cookies – instead of seeking to mobilize effective support from the rest of labor, or even its own members in other plants. Thus other unions could pretend to be “doing something” just by asking their members to join in...not buying cookies. Such a “strategy” is ineffective at best in a big industry whose workers have strategic power – and totally disastrous for a strike in a small consumer-goods plant. In fact, the real purpose was as a cover for not organizing the militant mass actions really necessary for winning, which would have upset the apple cart of those who sought collaboration with area politicians. To make matters worse, the union officials repeatedly stood in the way of initiatives from the most active and militant strikers, while preaching reliance on the capitalist courts and politicians.

Among left activists from a range of tendencies who participated in strike support activities, the pattern was to tail the union misleaders’ losing consumer-boycott “strategy,” throw in the usual popular-frontist rhetoric about how “the people united will never be defeated,” and be seen as “best builders” of generic solidarity. Internationalist Group supporters intervened at strike support meetings and worked intensively among area unionists with the call for using labor’s muscle to get the scab products off the supermarket shelves. We also agitated for labor to block the flow of products into the struck plant – where an entire wall of the factory, along a public sidewalk, had neatly labeled entry points for each of the types of flour, sugar and other ingredients used in the production process. Such elementary concepts of class struggle were received as surprising novelties by most left activists involved with the strike.

On June 30, a judge for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the company had violated labor law, and one left group after another – notably the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and Workers World Party  – rushed to hail this as “victory.” A cold shower was thrown on all this when Brynwood announced – the very same day the workers returned to the plant – that the factory would be closed in October. An Internationalist Group statement warned:  “With their steadfastness, the strikers beat back one attack. Now they face a new assault that is just as serious. ... In a difficult struggle, it is crucial to have clarity about who are your friends and who are your enemies. Illusions in the capitalist state are among the key obstacles that must be overcome” (“At Stella D’oro, the Struggle Continues: Mobilize NYC Labor to Stop the Plant Closing – No Concessions!” reproduced in The Internationalist No. 29).

Our calls for labor action to stop production and distribution struck a chord not only among Stella strikers but among supermarket workers and others – yet the labor tops turned a deaf ear. The indolent functionaries of the Central Labor Council could scarcely bring themselves even to listen to the strikers’ pleas for real support. Insult was added to injury when Stella workers were told they would march at the head of the 2009 Labor Day parade – then found themselves wedged way behind in the pro forma procession. (Long a venue for Democratic pols to lay claim to being “friends of labor,” this year’s parade also featured floats for Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg – notorious for breaking the 2005 transit workers strike.)

Class Struggle – or “Pressure Politicians”?

At this point, a real fight to mobilize effective working-class support for the Stella workers – in workplaces, union halls and the streets – became more urgent than ever. The Internationalist Group, as well as some of the strikers and a number of other leftists, pointed to the example of the factory occupation at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago. Instead, the union bureaucrats preached a line of wait-and-see, looking to “friendly” politicians to somehow save the day.

The situation cried out for intransigent class struggle, driving home the lesson – freshly highlighted by the false “victory” of the NLRB ruling – that workers must rely on their own class power. Instead, left groups clamored ever more loudly about “the importance of pressuring politicians,” in the words of a spokeswoman for the International Socialist Organization (ISO). While the ISO played a desultory role in the strike support, this summed up the approach of a gamut of social democrats and Stalinists who share the reformist conception of a “minimum program” for today’s struggles and a rhetorical “maximum program” for the sweet bye-and-bye.1

In the case of Progressive Labor, there is quite a wide gulf between its speeches about “fighting for communism” and articles in Challenge about “communist ideas,” and its actual activity in the trade unions. To their credit, PLP supporters worked hard on building support for the strike, on the picket line and in the unions of teachers in the NYC schools (UFT) and City University (PSC). Yet as crunch time neared, they pushed hard in the strike support committee to “focus on Bloomberg” and for a “rally to call on Bloomberg to keep the plant open.” Calling on the multibillionaire mayor, New York’s No. 1 labor-hater, to save the plant was thoroughly reformist, and absurd. PLers admitted hizzoner would do no such thing, but argued that it was smart tactics to demand it anyway. Such an approach can only delude workers into thinking their class enemies can be turned into friends.

A strikingly similar message was put forward by the League for the Revolutionary Party. While PL never gave up on Stalin, the LRP claims to be Trotskyist, sort of – oddly, since its actual politics are so starkly counterposed to what Trotsky actually stood for (beginning with its claim that the former USSR was “capitalist”). While making routine criticisms of Democratic Party politicians, the LRP’s lengthy September 12 bulletin on Stella D’oro focused on pressuring those who claimed to back the Stella workers (mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, the City Council). Under the heading “How Victory Can Be Snatched From the Jaws of Defeat” it wrote:

“[L]ocal city politicians cannot be allowed to stand by without being challenged to use their power to fight for the city government to take the factory out of the hands of the private capitalists who own it. The politicians, of course, have no intention of taking such action.... But experience proves that massive action can force them to concede workers’ demands.”

Arguing that “coupling mass labor action to demands on the politicians in this way” would “point the way forward for workers around the country who are facing factory closure and layoffs,” the LRP returned to this theme again and again:

“As an urgent measure, workers should demand that these politicians who claim to support our side on imminent plant closure call for a city government takeover of the plant, rather than allowing it to close.

“Under situations of great pressure, if workers use a strategy of mass action such as we have described, capitalist politicians at all levels can be forced to institute measures that at least temporarily benefit workers.”

Going beyond the observation that sharp class struggle can sometimes force concessions and defeat a capitalist attack on the workers, the LRP is here presenting a “strategy” of “mass action” geared to pressuring bourgeois politicians “at all levels.”

Warming to its theme, the LRP bulletin called for workers to “demand that the Obama administration nationalize all union-busting and failing companies.” In discussions, LRP supporters argued that their demands came from Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” (The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International [1938]). Nonsense. Trotsky argued that in addition to the general slogan of revolutionary expropriation of the bourgeoisie, under certain circumstances Marxists can “raise the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence” (cookies do not generally fall into this category) “or of the most parasitic groups of the bourgeoisie.” But he stressed that “we link up the question of expropriation with that of seizure of power” and, crucially, that “we call on the masses to rely only upon their own revolutionary strength.”

What the LRP is doing here is trying to turn Trotsky’s “transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution,” into a recipe book for bourgeois pressure politics. They’re not alone in this. For a discussion of such opportunist flim flam, see “Exchange on Transitional Demands” in The Internationalist No. 28, March-April 2009.

The idea that Obama would nationalize a cookie factory in the Bronx is downright ridiculous. But the illusions the LRP is peddling – counterposed to the Transitional Program – go far beyond this. As Karl Marx insisted, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The demand that the government take over “all union-busting and failing companies” means spreading the illusion that it could systematically act on behalf of the working class. Moreover, the LRP bulletin says: “It is high time that the workers’ organizations demand that the government solve the real crisis of production and jobs that is currently devastating workers’ lives.” How can a capitalist government solve the crisis of capitalist production? It can’t.

These concepts are straight-out reformism. Leftists who try to get the workers movement to adopt such demands, admitting all the while that the capitalist government will do no such thing, are creating illusions – and breeding cynicism under the guise of “clever tactics.” Illusions are the last thing workers need in a tough fight. Yet the fool’s gold of Obama’s fading popularity was still too much for them to resist.

The Stella D’oro strike and the subsequent fight to stop the plant closing showed a wrenching contradiction facing working people today. During this severe and drawn-out economic crisis, many want to find ways to fight back in defense of their jobs, their children’s education and their most basic rights. The fact that the Stella D’oro workers showed such tenacity and will to struggle was the reason so many were inspired by their fight. Yet the pro-capitalist labor “leadership” stands opposed to even the most basic measures needed to win.

This contradiction can only be resolved if the most thoughtful and serious militants set out to build a new, class-struggle leadership based on a program for defeating the rapacious employers and replacing their entire system of racism, war and exploitation. Again, this is above all a political fight, for a revolutionary workers party that tells the truth and draws the hard lessons of past struggles in order to open the way to a workers government. We hope to see a good number of veterans of the Stella D’oro struggle as comrades in that effort.

1 The Spartacist League deserves no more than a footnote here, as it avoided any participation in the struggle other than showing up at a handful of events to sell its paper (with no articles on the strike, let alone how to win it).

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com