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Why Unions Are Not to Blame For the Death of the Twinkie

Unions did not kill Hostess. Hostess killed Hostess.   

The fact that Hostess was unable to keep promises they’d made to their unionized workers was a sign of their demise, not the cause. Likewise, unionization would not kill Walmart, as critics of the Black Friday strike have claimed. And even if it did, it would be evidence of Walmart’s instability, not of the evil of organized labor.   

In her article, “Walmart and Hostess: Two Union Stories” Fox Business writer Elizabeth McDonald blames unions for the demise of Hostess, famous maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and other forms of deep-fried obesity. And, because of their close timing, she attempts to use the case of Hostess as evidence in an argument against Walmart workers organizing for better pay and treatment.

Even while condemning unions for bringing down the beloved company, McDonald quotes the financial research company PrivCo as saying,

“As Americans both cut back spending on baked goods as well as move toward healthier eating options, Hostess Brands failed to innovate and offer fresher, healthier baked goods, resulting in 9 straight years of revenue declines.” 

Certainly the unions didn’t strong-arm Hostess into ignoring consumer trends and going about business as usual even as their customers looked elsewhere. This decline was a symptom of Hostess’ outdated attitude — one stuck in the days when production in America was booming.

“This is the second bankruptcy in a decade for Hostess,” McDonald says, making it clear that the company has been troubled for a while, “as sales plummeted from $3.1 billion in 2006 to just $2.45 billion in 2011, a 20% drop, according to PrivCo.”

So rather than blaming big, bad unions, maybe people should examine what Hostess did (or failed to do) to get to the point where they couldn’t afford to both stay salient and stick to the collective bargaining agreements they’d made with their unionized workers about wages and pensions.

There are a lot of problems with modern unions — that much I’ll gladly concede — but the larger problems with unions in general don’t explain away the mismanagement of Hostess as a company. McDonald outlines some obscure demands the unions made of Hostess, like rules about which trucks having to carry either bread or snacks, but not both, claiming that if the unions would’ve just been reasonable, Hostess could’ve survived.  

What she fails to mention is that the real struggles between the unions and management were not over which trucks could carry which snacks, but over much more important things like pensions, which management stopped contributing to, and pay, which they wanted to cut by 27 to 32%, Salon reported.

McDonald argues that the unions should have given up the contracts they’d previously negotiated for and been promised to make up for the company’s declining sales and bad management. But if a company can’t succeed without chipping away at workers’ pay and benefits, then they can’t, and shouldn’t, succeed at all.

It would be much easier for companies to make money if they could work their employees around the clock and pay them a few pennies a day, but when that happens in China, Americans call it a human rights violation. And yet when American workers complain that they’re not earning enough to feed their families, people come out of the woodwork to point out that if they’re not satisfied with their working conditions, they can quit and open up the position for someone who would gladly take whatever the company is willing to offer. The same argument has been made of Chinese sweatshops.

No, I’m not saying that working the register at Walmart is as bad as spending 18 hours hunched over a sewing machine in a sweatshop in China, but the principle is the same: just because there are people out there desperate to do the work for insufficient pay, that doesn’t mean that workers should keep their mouths shut if they feel they deserve more.

The Black Friday protest of Walmart ended up being pretty lackluster, with only a tiny percentage of employees participating, but the lack of participation can’t be attributed entirely to a lack of interest when the company has so openly threatened workers with retaliation.

“If associates are scheduled to work on Black Friday, we expect them to show up and to do their job. And if they don’t,” The Examiner quoted a spokesperson as saying, “there could be consequences.” Such threats are illegal, and workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the New York Times reported.

Hopefully the first stirrings of discontent on Black Friday were just the beginning of organized demand for better pay, benefits and treatment for Walmart employees. And hopefully, with the threat of retaliation on record with the NLRB more workers will feel confident in their right to demand what they feel they deserve and Walmart will have to find other ways to address them.

If the story of Hostess informs the way people think about Walmart at all, it should be with the lesson that if a company can’t afford to take care of its employees, it has much bigger problems than spoiled workers who ask too much. 

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