Say what you will about Governor Chris Christie, but the man has a great sense of humor about himself. The latest instance of his jocular self-deprecation took place on Monday, when he was asked how he felt about the increasing possibility that Twinkies will become a thing of the past.
"I'm on ‘Saturday Night Live’ enough. You think you're getting me behind this microphone having me talk about Twinkies? No, no, no, no, no. It's bad that I even said the word ‘Twinkie’ from behind this microphone.”
I feel your pain, Chris Christie. We may disagree on education reform, economic policy, abortion, and gay rights, but being a “husky” man transcends these distinctions. The prospect of a world without Twinkies brings a lump to our throats that is more than a little unbecoming.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a junk food addict to feel invested in the Twinkie case. When Hostess Brands announced its reason for moving to liquidate and sell off its assets in bankruptcy court, it placed most of the blame on the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), which has been on strike since November 9th. According to CEO Gregory Rayburn (who was hired to restructure the company after it filed for conventional Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January), the company couldn't maintain sustainable profit margins while the bakers' union was striking. Its owners eventually decided that their best move was to disband the company and lay off its 18,500 employees.
When conservatives decry labor movements, they often point to cases like this one, arguing that unions cut so sharply into the profits of employers that they create fewer jobs or implement mass layoffs to compensate. Yet these arguments ignore the reasons why these workers needed a union to fight for their rights in the first place. After Hostess first filed for bankruptcy in 2004, BCTGM agreed to major wage and benefit concessions while Hostess laid off thousands of workers. Although reports indicate that Hostess saved $110 million through such measures, the company did not reinvest this money back into the business. Instead, the company continued to flounder until it again requested significant concessions from its unionized members, even as it violated federal labor law by stopping payment on its pension obligations. All the while, Rayburn and nearly a dozen other top executives gave themselves raises ranging between 35% and 300%.
In short, this isn't the right-wing fairy tale you hear bandied about so often, in which overly-enabled "takers" try to leech so much money off the productive "makers" that they wind up bringing a company to its knees. Employers and employees participate in a mutual economic undertaking that common decency holds should require sacrifices from both sides. As happens so often, the workers were willing to accept losses while the people at the top refused to accept any of their own. Because so many of the fundamental protections guaranteed to labor by early 20th Century presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were eliminated by Ronald Reagan and his successors, workers have lacked the power to effectively defend their own economic interests and rights. That is why - right, wrong, or indifferent - private sector employers usually have the upper hand.
Although Christie's biggest fight has been against a public union (the New Jersey Education Association) instead of a private one, the issues at stake here cut to the heart of one of the defining problems of American economic life today. On the one side are conservatives and libertarians who – whether their ideological origins trace back to Tea Party pamphlets, Ayn Rand manifestos, or the pseudoscholarly world of Austrian economics – are consistent in finding a way to vilify the struggling members of America's working class. On the other are the liberals, moderates, and those who simply possess a humanitarian bent, all of whom agree with Franklin Roosevelt's immortal maxim:
"Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work."
For that to happen, we need to start by seriously exploring the deeper socioeconomic problems that put the 18,500 Hostess workers in this jam in the first place. One way to do that would be to hear what future national leaders like Chris Christie really think of both this strike and the larger plight of America's beleaguered working class ... all fat jokes aside.