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SPOTLIGHT
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OK, so who moved my Twinkie?

Published on -1/2/2013, 9:19 AM

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By MARY SANCHEZ

America lost one of its iconic brands last year when Hostess, maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Wonder Bread and other staples of postwar Middle America, closed up shop.

The announcement was an occasion for wags to litter the Internet with jokes about the Twinkie, a pathetic industrial confection that couldn't be more out of step with our artisanal, gourmet tastes. But there was another curious aspect to the story: Hostess workers were still represented by several labor unions, and one of them, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, had gone on strike. The failure of management and the bakers union to reach an agreement, it appears, precipitated the closing of the company and the loss of 18,000 jobs.

The Twinkie and the labor union, going down together -- the story fitted perfectly into a pat journalistic narrative in which unions have done their work (thanks for the eight-hour day, folks!) but now must exit the historical stage.

Unfortunately, reality is not quite so simple. Recently, we learned -- from the Wall Street Journal, no less -- that the company had diverted payments it was supposed to make to the employee pension fund into other operating accounts. This at a time when finances were tight and management nevertheless decided to give itself more bonuses and salary raises.

Genius.

This is the new America: Bonuses and stock options for the top brass, pink slips and blame for the working class. Most Hostess employees had taken steep pay cuts over the last few years. One of the major reasons the bakers union went on strike was that the company was not honoring prior pension agreements.

The version we got from the headlines was a little different: Union refuses to negotiate, forces 80-plus-year old company to shut down.

Don't be mistaken. What happened at Hostess is part of a long, protracted shift in the American workplace. Companies use any means at their disposal, including bankruptcy reorganization, to get rid of unions. Meanwhile, right-wing think tanks and pundits demonize union members as freeloaders and thugs. It has been a decades-long project, and it's been incredibly successful.

Look at Michigan. With a law signed this week by Gov. Rick Snyder, it became the 24th state in the nation where a person can accept a job, along with the benefits negotiated by union contracts, and opt out of paying union dues. In time, this will undercut the unions -- and their ability to negotiate with employers.

That Michigan could become a "right to work" state is a testament to the power of the anti-union narrative. This is the very state where the once powerful United Auto Workers was birthed. But notice how this event is covered. Some in the media present this as a sad event -- it's always sad when Middle Americans lose out. Others tout it as a victory for freedom. But nobody in the media is permitted to register this in outrage, to decry this as systematic rigging of the system in favor of employers at the expense of employees.

The only outrage permitted is Fox News' incessant coverage of the "thug" angle.

We also saw this in the coverage of the Chicago teachers strike -- indeed, in any discussion of education reform. We are to understand that all blame for the problems of public education in this country can be hung around the necks of the teachers unions. They protect bad teachers, undercut efforts at reform, and fight all measures to hold them accountable for performance.

The troubles of public education are legion. Yet other factors that also affect educational quality receive far less reflection. Matters such as how districts are funded, and the additional difficulties that come with educating impoverished children in high-crime neighborhoods.

Then there is the issue of public employee compensation, which is said to be bankrupting states. Of course, union scolds never pause to ask why legislatures love to underfund pension funds -- that is, to fail to live up to the contracts the states have negotiated with public employees in the first place. In this way, politicians are a bit like private equity operators stuffing companies with debt, squeezing fees and profits into the right pockets, and shafting patsies like wage employees and the public.

The National Labor Relations Board has determined that Hostess didn't play fair in the negotiations with the bakers union. This news was no doubt met with smirks by those who regard the board as just another government entity standing in the way of big business.

Yet for all the bluster about makers and takers, job creators and moochers off society, one group is habitually left voiceless. They are the people who actually perform manual work, the blue-collar employees. They operate forklifts, stand on assembly lines, drive trucks and, yes, put sugary cream into yellow cakes.

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. msanchez@kcstar.com

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