Twinkies: A Failure of Unionization

Box of Twinkies

Box of Twinkies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twinkies may survive nuclear warfare, but the iconic sweet treat ultimately couldn’t withstand the might of the unionized workforce. Faced with mounting losses and overwhelming debt, due in no small part to the relentless demands of the various unions representing the nearly 19,000 employees, Hostess Brands filed bankruptcy for the second time in January 2012 and ultimately requested permission to liquidate it’s assets in November of last year when a buyer failed to materialize. While many factors played a part in the demise of the maker of such all-American snacks as Ding Dongs and Ring Dings, as well as childhood favorite Wonderbread, there is no denying the fact that costs imposed by union contracts were a major factor in the shuttering of this once-beloved company.

While there is certainly plenty of blame to go around, the simple fact is that nearly 97 percent of the company’s unsecured claims were from employee pension funds, according to the Chapter 11 filing. How did those claims arise? Simply put, the skyrocketing pension expenses were caused by the unions continuing to push for overly generous retirement rewards despite overwhelming evidence that the company could never sustain those costs. True, the unions did agree to considerable concessions prior to and even following the first bankruptcy filing in 2004. However, that was only after union officials had pushed wages and other benefits into the stratosphere, even though Hostess has been struggling for years to remain competitive.

Certainly America’s changing eating habits, increased competition from such companies as McKee Foods, makers of Little Debbie snack cakes, and rising commodity costs all contributed to the ultimate demise of Twinkies. There is no doubt, though, that union contracts inhibited the company’s ability to adapt and make the necessary changes to remain profitable. Not only were employee costs out of control, ridiculous union rules made it nearly impossible for the company to make money. These are just a few of the rules that hampered Hostess’ management:

  • Twinkies and Wonder Bread could not be delivered on the same truck.
  • Drivers could only deliver one product, even if they did not have a load and a load of another product was waiting to go out.
  • Drivers could only drive. They had to wait for loaders to fill their trucks.
  • Likewise, loaders could only handle one product. Their contract prohibited a Twinkie loader from helping out if the Wonder Bread loaders were shorthanded.

Yes, management agreed to these terms, but often they were forced to do so in order to prevent a costly strike. In fact, it was a labor strike that lead to the decision to liquidate.

Unions are meant to protect workers from dangerous working conditions, overbearing management and unfair labor practices. Ensuring a living wage and decent benefits is another of their responsibilities. However, it is evident that in this case, the unions became as much an enemy of the Hostess employees as of the company’s management. As a result of their unwillingness to compromise and make wage and benefit concessions, almost 20,000 people no longer have a job that needs to be protected. In the end, the unions drove not only the company but themselves out of business.

Not to fear, however. Two private equity firms acquired Hostess’ assets last fall and are beginning to turn the company around. Production of Twinkies began again in June, and the gooey sponge cakes returned to store shelves on July 15. The workforce has been dramatically reduced and will not be unionized. In the end, probably the only winner in this battle is America’s sweet tooth.

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