BIDDEFORD — Hostess Brands bakery workers picketed through a 5 p.m. deadline Thursday, setting the stage for the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread to start liquidation proceedings.
Hostess, which employs 500 in Maine and 18,000 people nationally, had warned that if the strike continued, it would go to bankrutpcy court on Friday to seek to liquidate the company. Hostess said it could begin laying off all workers and liquidating factories as early as Tuesday if it gets approval from the court.
Outside the gates of the Hostess bakery on Precourt Street in Biddeford, about 150 workers counted down to the 5 p.m. deadline. They cheered and chanted “shut it down, shut it down” as the deadline passed. The Biddeford plant employs 370, including 300 workers represented by the bakery union.
“We’re out here in force to stop these guys from stealing from us,” said Erwin Merrill of Westbrook, who has worked for Hostess for 13 years. “They’ve taken our pension and cut our benefits and pay.”
The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, which represents about 30 percent of Hostess’ workers nationally, went on strike last Friday. Two dozen bakeries have been on strike or have honored the walkout. Hostess has 36 bakeries nationally.
Hostess officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday night.
Merrill and other striking workers said they hoped another company would buy Hostess’ assets. The Biddeford plant makes chocolate cupcakes, pink Sno Balls, other confections and bread. Hostess bought the former J.J. Nissen bakery in 1998.
“Ideally, we’d like to see a different company come in and keep the workforce. That’s really the hope,” said Jim Carini, 50, who has worked for Hostess for 18 years.
Earlier on Thursday, the bakery union said it would end its strike if the company rescinded cuts in wages and benefits.
“I am sure that our members would be agreeable to return to work as soon as the company rescinds the implementation of the horrendous wage and benefit reductions, including pension, and the restoration of the cuts that have already taken place,” bakery union president Frank Hurt said in a statement.
Hostess did not respond to that offer. The Irving, Texas-based company previously said it would not renegotiate the contract.
Hostess filed for bankruptcy in January, its second bankruptcy in a decade. In September, 92 percent of the bakery union rejected the contract concessions, which included an immediate 8 percent wage cut. The contract was approved by the Teamsters.
“I have mixed feelings. I love my job,” said Sue Tapley, a breadmixer who has worked at the Biddeford plant for 13 years. “The pension is the crux of the whole thing. For me to give up a job that I loved, it had to be something serious like my retirement and future.”
The Teamster union, which represents drivers for Hostess, on Thursday recommended that the bakery union hold a secret ballot to determine if the workers want to continue their strike of the company and force it into liquidation. The Teamsters said the bakery union launched its strike without warning its sister unions.
“This unannounced action put Teamster members in the difficult position of facing picket lines without knowing their right to honor such a line without being disciplined,” the Teamsters said in a statement. “That strike is now on the verge of forcing the company to liquidate — it is difficult for Teamster members to believe that is what the (bakery union) members ultimately wanted to accomplish when they went out on strike.”
John Jordan, a business agent for the bakery’s Local 334 unit, said another vote was unnecesary because the union already made its wishes known when it rejected the contract terms. The union would continue picketing around the clock until the company either closes down or sets new contract terms.
Hostess has been trying to keep the Biddeford plant operating with managers and some replacement workers. On Thursday, white SUVs with tinted windows drove some workers in and out of the plant, through the crowd of sneering picketers who chanted “Scabs out, unions in.”
About 14 union workers in Biddeford crossed the picket line to continue work, union employees said. Tapley said signs around the plant had offered union workers time-and-a-half wages to cross the picket line and work during the strike.
“Everyone has their own reason for doing that. Everybody has to do what’s right for them,” Tapley said.