Remember the "Twinkie"

A Look inside the Inner Workings of a Strike

Unions have destroyed a beloved institution in America. Read on to find our interpretation of the motivation behind the final downfall of Hostess.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC


The “Twinkie” is dead.

Or at least on life support. There is some hope; maybe another company will purchase the Hostess product line, maybe 18,500 union workers will get their jobs back... or maybe they won’t. Many observers thought that Hostess and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union would find a solution to the impasse when the bankruptcy judge requested that both sides enter into mediation before he declared that the liquidation of Hostess will move forward.

There was much more on the line than Hostess, a company that was a staple in this country for many years. More importantly, there was the responsibility Hostess had in employing and supporting the livelihood of their 18,500 employees. Many people believed that these unionized employees would not jump off the bridge when the union told them they had no other choice, and that instead clearer heads would prevail. Many people believed that these employees knew and understood that their actions would lead to the closing of Hostess which had no benefit for the employees and/or the union.

Imagine if these 18,500 workers lost their jobs before the presidential election. Unemployment rates would not have been the same as they were a few months back. President Obama may have had a more difficult time being reelected. The Hostess disaster may not be in the same league as the near auto industry collapse but they are a household name and the effects are tangible.

It is important to understand the reasons that situations like this evolve. The unions have a deep-rooted purpose for these actions. Sadly, many people in management roles have very little understanding of these union principles.

As a former high-ranking union official, with a history of serving as an organizing coordinator and strike director at different times in my previous career, I have seen my share of what outsiders perceive to be self-destructive behavior on behalf of union members involved in labor disputes. I have also seen union members who are not directly involved with these disputes display the same behaviors. A normal reaction to most rational thinkers is to act in self-preservation mode when faced with a situation that may harm them. What would make a normally rational thinker act in a way that doesn’t support their best interests and the best interests of their loved ones - the people that depend on them? The real reason is not an isolated one. The real reason goes far deeper than any one company or any one strike.

The inner workings of a strike strategy are always in a state of movement in the mind of union officers. The elected officers know that the only way that they can continue to stay in office is to give employees the perception that they are consistently working to ensure that their membership is safer and that improvements are just around the corner. Those who are making their own plays to rise in the ranks within the unions know and understand that they have to make the union members feel vulnerable. They are purposely creating an internal “push and pull” with their members and forcing them to take sides.

High profile strikes can make or break careers for union leaders. AFL/CIO President Richard Trumka traveled a road to success that was paved with actions taken at the Pittston Coal Strike.

The Pittston Coal Strike affected workers in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. This strike pushed mine workers and their families into a position where they were actively involved in the work stoppages, a series of protests and rallies and several acts of civil disobedience. In June of 1989 approximately 2,000 workers who were out on strike were temporarily living at Camp Solidarity, with thousands more making donations and staging wildcat walkouts. This activity involved nearly 40,000 people. The “Daughters of Mrs. Jones” was composed of women who took an active role in the strike.

Violent activities were carried out by striking union members. But, they also worked to bring in non-unionized members and wildcat strikers who participated in the destruction of equipment, throwing of rocks into cars and homes, the use of firearms to shoot at the windows of the vehicles and houses of replacement workers and owners of the coal company. Car bombs were used to stop truckers from moving product. Human shields were created to block the flow of traffic. Although there were no deaths reported from this strike, several were injured. One person on the strike line was shot but later recovered.

Trumka was the mastermind behind the Pittston Coal Strike. It was the atrocities that occurred in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky that put him on the radar and it was his bold actions that provided union membership with the proof needed to demonstrate that he was not afraid to take action. While one cannot be 100% sure of his personal motives behind the strike, it is very easy to believe he knew his actions were a means to an end in his quest to the top of the AFL-CIO.

The inner workings of a strike, especially a large strike, are similar to a game of football. You play by a “win by any means necessary” mentality. Normally complacent workers begin to become aggressive. The aggressiveness is sparked by union officers during negotiations when they create an environment of anger and contempt. They push the membership towards a point of no return. They engrain in the workers' minds that striking is something to be proud of. In larger strikes, extensive support groups exist to ensure that the level of pride is consistently reinforced within the workers' mindset. Fellow union members from the international and local unions step up to support the strikers. These strikers are the frontline soldiers in the union’s war against corporate America.

<img style="margin-left: 10px;" alt="tipping" align="right" src="http://pslabor.com/images/s93.jpeg" height="250">In my own experience, I have seen strikers and strike supporters endure many things on and off of the strike lines. I have seen strikers fighting in hand-to-hand combat with police officers. I have seen them beaten, tear gassed and pepper sprayed, hit by trucks, divorced and even die for their cause. These workers didn’t simply wake up one day and decide that they were going to destroy their company, engage in fights with the police, lose their families or go to jail. Something else happened to change their mindset.

Union strategies in strikes normally are to push workers to the edge of the breaking point but sometimes they have to cross the line in order to win. They need the workers to follow the orders given to them from their union leaders. This will never happen without developing a cult-like obedience from their members. Anyone who falls out of line in a strike situation is dealt with harshly and turned into an example for other strikers to see. They are told it is for the betterment of the institution of unionism. For a successful strike to work, this has to be engrained into the mindset of the striking workers. This “devotion” is the key to winning a major strike. To the union, small strikes don’t really matter unless they are part of a larger strategy to strong arm a corporation.

<img style="margin-left: 10px;" alt="tipping" align="right" src="http://pslabor.com/images/tipping.jpeg" height="250">For lack of a better word, strikes are won through a sort of “brainwashing”. How else can some of the things that I have personally witnessed while I was on the union side be explained? I was on a strike line at 3 in the morning in front of a plant. We had a mission that involved preventing the company from transporting their products from the plant - well over 500 strikers were blocking the gate of the company when they sent a semi-truck out to try and break through the wall of strikers with armed security guards in full protection garb. The strikers stood armed with bricks and threw them through the truck's windows. The gates exploded open and several strikers (myself included) were in the path of a truck speeding down the driveway in an effort to move the crowd. The truck hit a curb while trying to avoid barriers that were set up in the driveway and flipped over. Hundreds of strikers engaged in a fight with police in an attempt to get to the driver to attack him.

I’ve seen striking workers follow replacement workers to their homes to attack them. I have seen workers put their families in jeopardy; I have seen them lose everything they own. Again, this is the mentality that is purposefully engrained into the mind of a unionized worker. Strike equals pride.

Another example of how normal everyday people become organized labor’s foot soldiers happened one night at a small distribution center that strikers forced to close down. Again, there was hand-to-hand combat with an army of security guards. On one side of the strike line there was an army of security guards ready to break the line. On the other side, over 200 police officers. This facility was in an old neighborhood. Over 60 neighborhood residents jumped in the fray to support the strikers. They began to throw rocks and break windows. They began to partake in the brawl. That night over 30 company trucks and at least 10 cars belonging to replacement workers were burned to ashy debris. This company closed that particular facility after the night of violence.

I watched a person with cancer who refused to cross the picket line to reestablish his benefits die. “He said he would rather die like a man than go out like a scab”. I watched wives in tears as their husbands came home beaten by police after inciting riots. I watched grown men bring their children to violent situations and use them as pawns. Again, this only happens because the unions know how to successfully associate striking with a feeling of pride in the workers' psyche.

It is in the International Unions’ DNA to put the institution of unionism ahead of the needs of their members. There were many times that we made a decision to destroy a company to make a point. We would tell our members “How dare they break us”, “How dare they refuse our demands”, “How dare they try and fight our organizing attempts”. We needed to twist everything we did into a victory. The outcome didn’t really matter; it was the perception of the outcome that counted. That perception is what continues to fuel the fire of workers who face strike situations. If we lost the strike we simply used it as a tool to our advantage. We knew we forced a company to close their doors. We would simply say to the next company entering negotiations, "Hey, do you want to remember what happened the last time our demands were not met?", and we knew he had them right where we wanted them.

To union leadership, it really doesn’t matter that several thousand jobs may be on the line when it comes to strikes. What matters is winning by any means necessary. Now the “Twinkie” is dead. After the strike that destroyed Hostess, the union admitted that they knew their striking actions would close the company's doors. But the next time they go to the negotiating table they will be able to say, “Hey - remember the ‘Twinkie’?”