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December 1, 2012

In defense of Twinkies -- and unions

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The Daily Star

---- — I was never a big fan of the Twinkie. Nope, I’m a Hostess Cupcake gal all the way. 

When I was a kid, I used to accompany my mom or dad to “the bread store,” a factory outlet that sold discounted bakery products. We would load up a shopping cart with cheap wheat bread and, if my dad was doing the buying, a few boxes of Hostess Cupcakes or Zingers as well.

The whole mess of food went into the giant, ancient freezer in our pantry. Bread loaves got parceled out to the kitchen one at a time, but the cupcakes stayed in the freezer, to be eaten cold, the white cream filling hardened into a silky, sugary paste. My sister and I savored them as a welcome counterpoint to our otherwise healthy diets. It was an indulgence, a special treat — a memory I cherish to this day.

Now, a failed labor agreement has stopped production at Hostess and left me wondering if my beloved cupcakes are destined to become just that — a memory. And if I were to believe everything I read, I might think that it’s all because some mean, nasty union workers were so stubborn and intractable that they took down the whole company rather than make a few little concessions.

Elizabeth MacDonald of Fox Business paints one portrait of Hostess as victim, writing that, for example, “Union rules said no Hostess delivery trucks could have both bread and snacks on board, despite the fact the goods were going to the same stores.”

Those mean and silly unions, right? Who would ever agree to such a ridiculous rule? 

Well, Hostess, that’s who. MacDonald conveniently sidesteps the fact that the company agreed to those very union rules — just like it agreed to the pensions, wage increases and health and benefit plans it blamed for its demise. They were all negotiated, fair and square. That’s the way labor agreements work — or, at least, the way they’re supposed to work. Nowadays, the very idea of a labor agreement sounds like a page from the history book, rather than the news pages.  

The whole Hostess saga is tinged with nostalgia. The company has been criticized for failing to update its business model, clinging stubbornly to its core products of Twinkies and Wonder Bread even as the American palate has shifted away from bland, fatty, carb-laden products.

And as union membership in the United States continues to decline, the striking Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union workers seem like an anachronism. Nowadays, workers are supposed to just be happy to have a job, right?

I think not. I just can’t fault anyone for trying to save his or her job, or fight against pay and benefit cuts. Wouldn’t you, if you could? 

For those of us non-unionized folks, when our boss tells us that we’re not going to get a raise, that we need to work different hours, that our health care costs are going up or that our pensions are going away, what can we do about it? We can complain, or we can quit. Most of us choose the former. And as we do so, how many of us are secretly wondering if the people at the top are enduring the same austere measures?

Unions get to voice these thoughts loud and clear; and, more importantly, they stand a decent chance of actually being able to do something about it. Doesn’t sound like such a bad deal from where I sit. 

It’s a shame when union workers are seen as being just as indulgent and outmoded as Twinkies and Wonder Bread. I don’t want to see either one of them consigned to history. But if I had to choose, I’d take unions over baked goods any day.

EMILY F. POPEK is assistant editor of The Daily Star. Contact her at epopek@thedailystar.com.