Heartbreak at Stella D’oro

Luigi Merolla, 55, of Morris Park walks the Stella D’oro picket line from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday-Friday. A shipping supervisor, Merolla spent 36 years at the cookie factory before the strike.

Luigi Merolla is Stella D’oro. He joined the Kingsbridge cookie factory in 1972, a month after leaving Italy. He met a girl at the factory; they married in 1978. Merolla is a shipping supervisor and has belonged to the bakers’ union for 36 years.

Merolla is Stella D’oro but he is human, too. After ten months on the picket line, Merolla is hunting for a new job. He went on strike when factory owner Brynwood Partners proposed a wage and benefits cut; none of the 135 workers has returned.

“I need a job,” Merolla, 55, said. “I want to stay in shipping. I will do anything.”

The picket line at Broadway and W. 237th Street is diverse. During the 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. shift, Merolla stands shoulder to shoulder with Chinese, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican and Greek-American workers. There are other Italian-Americans; the Stella D’oro family immigrated to the Bronx from Italy in 1922. Morella lives in Morris Park.

“The family was good,” Merolla said. “You leave Italy. You live in the Bronx. You get a job in the factory.”

Merolla liked working at Stella D’oro. So did his wife.

When Merolla married, he moved from Arthur Avenue to Morris Park. His daughters attended St. Catharine Academy in Pelham Parkway. Today, he collects unemployment.

“You want to go out to a restaurant,” Merolla said. “You can’t. You want to go out to a movie. Forget about it.”

Merolla is lucky; his daughters are 25 and 24. Many of the striking workers support school-age children. Even so, Merolla had hoped to retire by 2015.

The trouble began when Brynwood Partners bought Stella D’oro, in 2006. Merolla applauded the sale. Production surged.

“[Brynwood] rescued the factory,” he said.

Then the Connecticut firm proposed a new contract. Merolla stood to gain 50 cents an hour but stood to lose a week of vacation and other benefits. Brynwood asked some workers to swallow a five-dollar hourly wage cut by 2012.

“We earned a good contract,” he said. “[Brynwood] wanted to take it away. I wanted to cry.”

Brynwood employs temporary workers; the product has suffered, Merolla said. He has suffered, too.

Merolla has targeted jobs at Coca-Cola in Westchester, the New School in Manhattan and Pepsi Co in the Bronx. No luck.

“I guess they want a young guy,” Merolla said.

“I never thought to look for a new job before,” Merolla said.

The National Labor Relations Board will rule on the strike soon. HBO recently visited to shoot a documentary.

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