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Stella D’oro strike leads to worker’s illness

Mike Filippou, 44, of Country Club, is sick. Sick with a cough. Sick of his employer.

Filippou’s union – BCTGM Local 50 – marched down Broadway on Saturday, January 31. For five months, 135 workers have picketed outside Stella D’oro’s Kingsbridge cookie factory, Filippou among them.

Filippou didn’t march on January 31. He was home coughing.

“Day after day, we stand in the cold,” Filippou said. “Now I have a lung problem.”

The strike has been tough on Filippou, a mechanic. He was earning $21 per hour. Now he makes do with unemployment benefits and a $100 per week union stipend. Fillippou is divorced with two teenage daughters.

“It’s difficult to live on $400 per week,” he said. “I’ve cut back on using my car, shopping in the supermarket, you name it.”

Fillippou was arrested in October 2008 for allegedly pushing a piece of wood with nails sticking out of it under the wheel of a temporary worker’s car. Fillipou will plead not guilty on March 31. He admits to cursing at the temp.

Fillippou joined Stella D’oro in 1994. He liked the factory, his co-workers and employer Nabisco.

“Nabsico was good to us, very professional,” said Fillippou. “Nabisco was fair with our wages and insurance and pensions.”

According to Fillippou, the trouble began in 2006, when Brynwood Partners, a Connecticut-based firm, purchased the factory. Brynwood revamped Stella D’Oro’s product line, Filippou said, and gave the cookie company a new look.

Filippou didn’t mind at first.

“They were doing great,” he said. “Three months before our contract expired, they held a meeting with the whole factory and told us business was good.”

Then, last summer, Local 50’s Stella D’oro contract ran out.

“We sat down to negotiate a new contract,” said Filippou, the factory’s union rep. “Suddenly, Brynwood is losing money. Suddenly, they can’t afford to pay our wages.”

Brynwood proposed a dollar per hour wage cut every year for five years, and trimmed vacation days and sick days, Filippou said. Most Stella D’oro workers earn $18 per hour.

“You’re looking at $13 per hour in 2012,” said Filippou. “And instead of a pension, a 401K. Who wants a 401K?”

According to a Stella D’oro spokesman, the company made a series of enhanced offers last summer; union members chose to go on strike to demand more.

Stella D’oro’s final offer, which union members rejected, included substantially similar wages for most employees and increases for others, the spokesman stated. It also included pension benefits paid for entirely by the company.

Filippou believes Brynwood had a plan for Stella D’oro.

“To hire scabs from the street and get rid of our union,” he said. “Then sell the factory.”

Local 50 has filed a labor board complaint. According to Filippou, the board could stop Brynwood from hiring new permanent staff. Meanwhile, Filippou is anxious.

“I went to buy medicine,” he said. “Six medicines, $400, no benefits. It’s a terrible thing.”

The march from 237th Street to 225th Street drew more than 300 community activists,.

Stella D’oro continues to churn out cookies, although some reports have the factory producing less than before.

“Our business at Stella D’oro remains very strong,” the spokesman said. “The company is pleased that it has been able to attract replacement workers from the local community and keep these jobs in the Bronx.”

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