CALIFORNIA
Check out the new California section
OpinionTop of the Ticket

Twinkies' demise proves the stupidity of U.S. labor relations

Jobs and WorkplaceBusinessNewspaper and MagazineBankruptcyHostess Brands, Inc.

The Great American Twinkie Crisis illuminates what is wrong with the relationship between management and labor in this country. Hostess, the company that since the 1930s has provided our nation with snacks that are nearly indestructible, now threatens to go out of business and leave us bereft of Ding Dongs, Sno Balls, Ho Ho’s, CupCakes, Wonder Bread and a variety of other baked goods that are probably not good for us but, at least to a kid’s palate, taste so good.

The company blames a nationwide strike by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union for the imminent death of its brand. In response, the workers say management has failed to innovate -- the company's products have not changed in decades or adapted to new tastes and new concerns about nutrition and so have failed to keep pace with the market.

A bankruptcy judge briefly kept hope alive for fans of the sugary guilty pleasures by urging the bakers and the bosses to try to work out a resolution through private mediation that might have kept the Twinkies rolling out of the ovens (or wherever they come from). Sadly, the latest reports are that the mediation broke down and that the company will proceed with liquidation. That means 18,500 people will lose their jobs.

PHOTOS: Top of the Ticket cartoons

Two questions come to mind. First, did the workers understand how close to ruin the company was when they decided to go on strike? Second, did the owners bother to listen to employees' concerns about improving the product line or did they just let the brand drift into financial crisis?

And here's a third question: When will employers and workers stop acting like adversaries and learn that they are on the same side?

I am reminded of a newspaper strike I was drawn into back in 2000. Two newspapers were involved. At mine, there were really no serious issues that could not be worked out, but, because the two newspapers negotiated together, we got drafted into the picket lines along with everyone else. The newspaper industry was already starting to falter back then, so, in retrospect, the strike was even more self-destructive than it seemed at the time. But stubbornness prevailed on both sides and the strike dragged on for weeks.

Ultimately, a settlement was reached, but, within a few years, my newspaper had stopped print publication and the other one struggles on with very uncertain prospects. The strike did not cause the troubles, but it certainly did not help. The modest gains that were made were ephemeral. 

I am not at all anti-union. In fact, I believe the fading of labor power has contributed to the stagnation of middle-class incomes over the last 30 years. Far too many American workers now stand alone, forced to accept pay cuts, longer hours, reduced benefits and arrogant disregard from their employers. But strikes are a blunt instrument, a club used to hammer insensitive bosses until they cry uncle. In the 21st century, it seems as though there should be a better way. 

How about this? In any larger company, give employees as big a voice as investors. Give them a place at the table -- the table in the boardroom. Do not treat them as faceless cogs in a machine, treat them as what they are: the essential people who make the product or provide the service and who have good ideas of their own. Spread the rewards of success beyond the CEOs and stockholders. Workers should not have to strike to be given a fair share of company profits; they should have a real stake and a real voice in the success or failure of a company.

I will bet there was a way for Hostess to organize itself that would have brought employees into the process of saving the company. Instead, management and labor went to war and everyone lost.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Jobs and WorkplaceBusinessNewspaper and MagazineBankruptcyHostess Brands, Inc.
  • 'Obama gifts' comment shows Romney is clueless about the real USA
    'Obama gifts' comment shows Romney is clueless about the real USA

    In a postmortem of his campaign, Mitt Romney blamed his loss on President Obama’s "gifts" to key voting groups, thereby demonstrating, one last time, how he does not understand the country he hoped to lead. Meanwhile, Paul Ryan's poor showing in his own hometown indicates...

  • Titillation of Petraeus affair comes at a high cost for America
    Titillation of Petraeus affair comes at a high cost for America

    Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was lucky there was no such thing as email during the Second World War. His romantic relationship with his lovely Irish driver, Kay Summersby, did not come to light for decades and did not keep him from leading the D-Day Invasion, becoming the first supreme...

  • Sowing the seeds of an illogical crop ban
    Sowing the seeds of an illogical crop ban

    Last year's half-baked and unsuccessful proposal to ban genetically engineered crops in Los Angeles has not improved with time. Yet here it is before the City Council again, complete with wild statements about bioengineered food, chock full of inconsistent logic and, just like last...

  • Who's staying in that hotel?
    Who's staying in that hotel?

    This week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of an L.A. city ordinance that gives police easy access to hotel records and punishes hotel managers who don't hand them over with fines or jail time. The justices should agree with a lower court that the ordinance...

  • Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding
    Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding

    In what may be a hopelessly quixotic effort, supporters of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program are trying to persuade Congress to renew its funding almost a year in advance — and in a lame-duck session. Nevertheless, lawmakers ought to heed that call. The program plugs...

  • An Islamic State stalemate
    An Islamic State stalemate

    The United States and its allies are no longer losing the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and in the Middle East, that counts as progress.

Comments
Loading