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HOSTESS CLOSES; 200 LOSE JOBS - Officials say strike final blow for failing company

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Hostess Brands said Friday that baking operations at all plants, including the Dolly Madison facility in Columbus, have been stopped.

The maker of Twinkies and Ho Hos announced early Friday that it has filed paperwork with the bankruptcy court to seek permission to sell its machinery, plants and brands.

Hostess, based in Irving, Texas, said it was liquidating the company because a nationwide strike by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International union “crippled the company’s ability to produce and deliver products.”

Local 132, which represents about 160 bakery workers at the Columbus plant, near the southwest corner of National Road and Central Avenue, has been striking around the clock since 6:30 p.m. Nov. 9, enduring rain and freezing conditions.

In total, more than 200 employees worked at the Columbus plant, one of 33 bakeries, 565 distribution centers and 570 bakery outlet stores that operated throughout the United States.

Union members, who objected to a court-imposed contract that reduced wages by 8 percent, cut pensions and made health benefits more expensive, still were striking late Friday afternoon. Some still held out hope that a Hostess competitor would take over the company and keep the bakeries open.

Hostess had warned that a prolonged strike would mean the end of the company, including about 18,000 jobs with an annual payroll of about $576 million. The company had said that if enough employees hadn’t returned to work by 5 p.m. Thursday, plants would be closed. Despite the ultimatum, strikes continued nationwide.

Hostess, which is privately held, was trying to emerge from bankruptcy for the second time in a decade. It made union members a “last, best and final (contract) offer” in September, and though the company’s largest union, the Teamsters, approved the contract, the bakeries union rejected it. After the company forced the contract on the bakeries union through a judge, the bakeries union decided to strike. Union members said they wanted to renegotiate or force Hostess to sell the plants to another company.

Production at the Columbus plant was stopped Friday morning, said Larry Duncan, business agent for Local 132.

Local workers had made products including Dolly Madison powdered sugar, cinnamon and chocolate doughnuts and glazed sweet rolls.

The Columbus bakery, which was founded by Sap Essex in 1948, moved to its current location in 1960 and in 1972 merged with Beatrice Foods. Interstate Brands purchased the company in 1979 and changed the name from Sap’s Donuts to Dolly Madison. Interstate Brands, renamed Interstate Bakeries and then Hostess, filed for bankruptcy in 2004, emerged in 2010, and was bankrupt again this year.

In a show of camaraderie, retired Hostess driver Ernie Dailey spent some time on the picket line Friday morning. He retired last December after nearly 30 years with the company.

“They’ve told us so many lies,” Dailey said. “Eventually we just stopped believing them.”

Duncan, who has worked at the plant for just over 30 years, said the company’s cuts were just too deep for Dolly Madison plant workers to accept.

Employees on average made about $15 per hour before the cuts, and about $13.80 after. For an employee working 40 hours per week, that amounted to a weekly reduction of about $50 and an annual cut of about $2,500.

That’s before higher health insurance costs and cuts to pensions. Duncan said all reductions combined amounted to a weekly pay cut of about $200.

Duncan and other long-time employees took particular exception to pension plan cuts. Duncan, 49, said that without the cuts he could have retired with full pension benefits in March. Now he’ll have to wait until he’s 65.

Anthony Young, 49, who also has worked for the local bakery for more than 30 years, said he has begun looking for work.

Though his wife, Shelley, works as a caregiver for Developmental Services Inc., the father of seven children, including two who still live at his home near Hope, said the loss of income will stress the family’s budget.

“It’s going to be tight for all of us,” said Young, who made doughnuts in the bakery.

He said he will file for unemployment benefits as early as Monday.

Duncan said other union members already have filed for unemployment benefits.

The local unemployment office, at the Columbus Learning Center, welcomed about 15 to 20 former Dolly Madison employees on Friday, said Joe Frank, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

Though most people file for unemployment benefits online, Frank encouraged plant workers to come to the office to talk to a career counselor, the sooner the better.

About two weeks after the application is filed, people should receive a debit card, Frank said, and about a week after that, they should have some money in the account.

Although Hostess said it could begin selling assets as early as Tuesday, Duncan and Young still hope that another buyer will step forward.

Young said that union leaders had discussed that the situation might be resolved only after the liquidation.

“Right now we’re just hoping that another buyer will step in,” Young said. “Keep us in your prayers.”

Republic features editor Beth Clayton-George contributed to this report.

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