Where $18 an Hour is Too Much

The trucks rolled through the prison-like gates of the Stella D’Oro factory on upper Broadway in the Bronx this week, there to begin the process of moving the eighty year-old plant’s baking machinery to a facility in Ohio. Same cookies, same cakes, same breads, not same union wage. It seems that America cannot afford to pay a baker $18 an hour; that’s take home pay of $2,300 a month.

It’s especially painful for this workforce, watching their tools and ovens carted off, having been on strike for more than a year after the owners – a private equity firm out of Greenwich, CT (do they do anything else in Greenwich, CT?) — cut pay to $14 an hour, provoking the strike. More pain as the illegality of the company’s wage cut slowly wound its way to the NLRB, which upon hearing ruled in the workers’ favor, ordering their jobs restored … and only then did the bakers get a message from Greenwich that the plant would be shut, forever, its production siphoned off to greener pastures where union wages are ancient history.

Add the Stella D’Oro workers to the swelling ranks of New York’s unemployed, the most unfortunate of whom hit the streets before too long. First comes loss of housing. The losses of rent-regulated apartments to market forces, begun under Mayor Giuliani and continuing apace under current Mayor Bloomberg, keep escalating… net declines in low and moderate rental housing now a widely accepted, seemingly unstoppable fact.

These same market forces dictate the “costs of innovation” – nothing more than a bargaining term of the hoarders of capital, whose banks today have twelve times capital reserves as pre-crisis levels, spiking stocks yet again, and whose agents are anxiously awaiting another big feeding at the bonus trough. Can’t keep good people without a good feeding. Money is being made big time and in those circles the recession is indeed over and done with, an expression heard hourly on Cable TV business reports, when in fact hardly anyone else thinks the recession’s declared absence has any meaning whatsoever to their lives, present and future.

New York City’s homelessness is at an all-time high… 120,000 men, women and children called the shelter system home at some point during the fiscal year that ended in June… 10,000 families live in those shelters today. More would come but there’s simply no more room. Barack Obama believes in banks over jobs. He would have the Stella D’Oro workers believe that growth in the GDP (as will happen at the Ohio plant) will free up markets, loosen credit and create good jobs, somewhere… a simplistic and one-sided proposition at best and certain not to lead to jobs in any substantial numbers this year or next. Or even in 2011. That’s a long, long time. Especially if you just came off a year-long picket line. These are very hard times.

How the Fed governors resolve their conflict about the pace of purchasing $1.25 trillion in T-bills and mortgage-backed securities, whether to keep interest rates low and credit easy, or to pull back government spending, let others step in to buy and bid up rates, inducing some inflation… this matters little to the Stella D’Oro workers. The trucks are packed and have hit the road to Ohio.

Nor do the details of the competing health care proposals hold the interest of these laid off workers… the fact that, even if a public option were to be included in the end, hospitals, clinics and doctors are free to opt out of it… the same providers who express a preference not to serve Medicaid patients. Not noticed by the workers.

On COBRA, yes, the workers would take notice that the government picks up 65% of their health care premium for nine months.. but that still leaves hundreds of dollars a month per person to be paid for COBRA coverage to insurance companies. The bottom line with all the plans debated today in Congress is that they will cost people money every month, money they don’t have, or certainly could not keep paying given rates of increase of health care premiums – which averaged 8.9% a year for a decade (!) and are projected to keep going up and up.

What these workers know is that they are not likely to get a job with a living wage again anytime soon. Reports out this week point to NYC job growth in retail and other services in the $14,000-$19,000 annual pay range—poverty wages. No wonder tens of millions of working Americans qualify for food stamps, as the numbers of workers earning poverty wages grows. Food stamps: a government subsidy to low wage-paying factory owners.

As those trucks pulled away this week they took with them the prospect of decent lives for several hundred workers and their families, for whom demise is now a near certainty. These trucks are making the rounds in every city in America. And there is no plan to stop them.

CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at carlginsburg@gmail.com

CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at carlginsburg@gmail.com