The Hostess story has it all. The Americana of those plastic-wrapped, sickly sugary snacks; a nationally moderated blame game between the company and the union, and a workforce that isn’t quite ready to give up.
The already troubled company declared bankruptcy after a protracted fight with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. The union said, and several news stories agreed, that it was mismanagement from the top that led to the bankruptcy.
The company’s narrative was that the union refused to take concessions, leaving more than 18,000 people without their jobs. Some commentators characterized the union’s stance as “a false sense of pride.”
But what has been conspicuously missing is the voice of the people on the shop floor. Truthout interviewed Mike Hummell on his time at Hostess and why he supported the strike. Hummell worked at Hostess for 14 years, the last six as a receiving clerk, moving incoming supplies into the bakery.
In a blog you wrote for Daily Kos, you say that you love Wonder Bread and that your work with bakeries helped you “join the middle class.”
The truth is, I was poor my whole life. When I was a kid we didn’t have a lot of money, and by a lot of money, I mean any. I remember there were a few years when we were an “Adopt-A-Family” and we’d get presents from people we never knew. Until I was five, we lived on my grandparents’ dairy farm, but then we lost it in the farm crisis. I was poor until I got a job at Wonder Bread. I was 22 then, and I was like, “Wow, you can get paid?!”
You were at Hostess for 14 years. What were the major changes during your time there?
I caught the end of the glory days and then the entire downward slope. When I started there, we talked to the older people and there was genuine love and respect for Wonder Bread. One of the strangest things I’d ever had happen was when one guy had his funeral all Wonder Bread-themed. I would never do that now. When I started, it was a no-brainer that you were going to draw your retirement someday.
Then after five or six years, you start to realize it’s all going down. It became obvious when they first declared bankruptcy [in 2004]. In 2001, workers in Lenexa, Kansas went on strike for 45 minutes. We were ready to go on strike in Waterloo [Iowa] but they called us and said no, they had agreed to a deal. Then everyone went back to work, no stress. We didn’t see the struggle of the contract negotiation, it just kind of happened. I was, like everyone else, a little spoiled in the whole process. I wasn’t engaged, it just kind of happened, and my paycheck was fine so it was like, Oh, good. I have a pretty good car, we can still go on vacation and stuff.
Then in 2005, they asked us for concessions, and they were big but not life-changing. It was a hard sell for the older people, because orders aren’t really down that much, how are we suddenly not profitable? They [the company] took $10 of our weekly paycheck to pay for reinvestment in infrastructure, and we agreed to pay more for insurance. They also changed a lot of work rules, and work rules matter. If I’m working eight hours a day and then suddenly 12 hours, a day that’s a huge difference. I think I lost $7,000 in lost overtime costs.
There is this narrative that the union talked us into voting for it, and we are portrayed as a bunch of emotional children that can’t make decisions. We knew what we were doing when we took concession in 2005.
Why did you support the decision to go on strike?
Because there was no reason to keep the job. My opinion is that I’m better off looking for work and fighting to keep Wonder Bread in a union rather than getting what they offered us and spending the next five years in poverty. I would be guaranteed a 5 percent pay cut every year, and go from $16.12 to $11.26 an hour. It’s easy to say, “Well, no, you should just fight to keep the job.” The job I had is a wonderful job, and it will be hard to replace. The other one I could have been getting is not. There is a Walmart eight blocks from my house. I can work there. People forget we have already been made these exact same promises by these exact same people. They lied then. Why would we believe it this time? I have a total lack of confidence and faith in these owners.
Workers represented by the Teamsters didn’t go out on strike with you, and the union said the strike “put thousands of jobs in jeopardy.”
The media and the company are portraying it as if there are two unions in a heated battle, and one that takes it and one that doesn’t. Everyone knew every day that the Teamsters were turning it down [the contract] and so did the bakers. There would be no question what would happen. The Teamsters did a mail-in ballot, and they said, “Do not write on your ballot,” and “Do not put more than one in an envelope.” Okay, rules are legitimate. But people wrote “Hell no” or “No way” on their ballot. According to the Teamsters, for the final vote, out of 8,500 Teamsters, they disqualified over 3,000 votes. In St. Louis, they had 45 drivers put all their ballots into one envelope. I’m not saying the union cheated; perhaps every one of them was a legitimate disqualification. But it is absolutely false that they were against us. The few people whose votes were counted decide for everyone. The vast majority of people thought they were going on strike with us, and they came out to stand with us on the picket line.
What are your other concerns with how the narrative is portrayed in the news?
I read so much crap. The last week and a half, I have done nothing but read online what people were saying about us and me. The number of myths that people believe is so overwhelming that I can’t keep up. People think we asked for more money and it’s nothing to do with us starting to bleed; they think we refused to negotiate. I am not impressed with the idea that we are all a bunch of rubes and don’t know what we are doing.
When I first called you, you were heading to the workforce center. What do you see yourself doing next?
In the short term, I’m still planning on getting Wonder Bread back. They will sell to somebody. They are a huge marketplace, and the fact is that they will need to reopen most of these bakeries, and they will need us. If you are going to try to meet the demand for Hostess from scratch, you won’t make it. No company in the United States is geared up enough to make Twinkies overnight. The number-two goal is to find something if I can’t do that. So far, nothing I’ve found pays less than what Wonder Bread pays me. It’s all more than $11.06 an hour.