Stella D’oro, a cookie-and-biscuit factory in the Bronx, was founded by an Italian-American family in 1930. By the early 2000s it employed some 138 union workers from 22 different countries, and despite becoming a large company with a well-known brand, it maintained a small entrepreneurial sentiment. Employees were treated like family and, in turn, they treated one another the same way. In 2006, Stella D’oro was bought by Brynwood Partners, a private-equity firm that buys and sells small companies. When the factory bakers’ contract was up for renewal in 2008, Brynwood demanded wage cuts of up to 30%, and the workers went on strike. At the beginning of this film, they had already been on strike for eight months. “No Contract, No Cookies!” is their battle cry.
Through interviews with striking workers outside the factory, where they picket daily from an old trolley, their obvious fondness for Stella D’oro is revealed, as is their varied backgrounds. “Everybody knows Stella D’oro because of the quality of the cookies we used to make,” says Mike Filippou, a factory mechanic from Greece. On the “scabs” now working in the factory, he says, “they never make a cookie in their life. When I see those cookies in the supermarket, I want to cry.” A majority of striking employees have worked at Stella D’oro for over a decade – sometimes three or four – and for many, it was their first and
only job in the U.S.A. Most of the veterans began working at Stella D’oro when they were young immigrants, and planned to retire from the company. All had moved here for a better life. Now, because of the strike, they are unemployed and uninsured.
Filippou admits over a Vietnamese lunch with machinist Thanh La that before Stella D’oro, he’d never tried Vietnamese food, let alone had a Vietnamese friend. The bond the workers
share is so strong that one donated his kidney to an ailing co-worker who was also godfather to his son. “Workers united will never be defeated,” they shout at a rally in Union Square. Though the workers came from different countries originally, they now band together on the same side of the picket line, proud of their shared roots at Stella D’oro.
As the strike drags on, the protesters’ finances run thin. The workers propose a return to their old contract, but Brynwood rejects the offer. Protesting outside Brynwood’s Greenwich, CT headquarters, they sue to get their jobs back, accusing Brynwood of “bargaining in bad faith.” After 11 months of striking, the judge rules in favor of the workers – their union lawyer said it was one of the largest victories he’d ever seen. The workers take their celebration to the streets, holding signs for passersby to honk for their victory instead of their usual signs of protest. They couldn’t be more excited to get back to work, even when it means a 4 a.m. wakeup call.
As sudden as their victory, an unexpected reality sets in. The very same day the workers are reinstated by court order, Brynwood decides to exercise its right to close, selling the factory to Lance Inc. (an “extremely anti-union company,” says union lawyer Louie Nikolaidis), which has expressed interest in moving Stella D’oro’s production out of state.
During the workers’ final plea at City Hall, and with only a few hours notice, Lance announces the closing of the Stella D’oro plant in the Bronx. The workers enter the factory one last time, escorted by security to retrieve their belongings. Stella D’oro cookies are now made in a non-union plant in Ohio.
CREDITS: Directed and Produced by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill; Producers: Reina Higashitani and Shannon Sonenstein; Editor: John Custodio; For HBO: Production Executive: Susan Benaroya; Supervising Producer: Sara Bernstein; Executive Producer: Sheila Nevins.