* Hostess deadline for union agreement looms
* Company says will sell off assets without labor
* Striking workers say they can't afford 8 pct pay cut,
* Workers blame management for company's financial problems
By Carey Gillam
LENEXA, Kan Nov 15 A standoff between Hostess
Brands Inc. and thousands of its bakery workers was heading for
a showdown Thursday as both sides declared they would not bend
and were set to accept the demise of the historic maker of
Twinkies and Wonder Bread.
The bankrupt company is on its last legs, according to
management, and will ask a bankruptcy court on Friday for
permission to liquidate unless workers at Hostess plants across
the country return to work by 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT) on Thursday.
Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and
Grain Millers International Union went on strike Nov. 9 to
protest 8 percent pay cuts and other health care and pension
concessions sought by the company.
The strike has severely hindered performance at about
one-third of the company's 36 bakeries, company officials said.
"The significance is tremendous," said Lance Ignon,
spokesman with Sitrick and Co., which is handling communications
for Hostess. "If we don't have enough people go back to work
today to ensure we can go back to full operations."
The bitter dispute pits the 82-year-old company against the
Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers
International Union, whose members constitute about one-third of
Hostess' nearly 18,000 employees.
While the company has said it must have significant labor
concessions to continue to survive, the union has said the
company must rescind the wage and benefit reductions.
Union President Frank Hurt said Thursday that the crisis is
a "result of nearly a decade of financial and operational
mismanagement" and said management was trying to make union
workers the scapegoats for a plan by "Wall Street investors" to
sell off Hostess.
The union said the private equity and hedge funds that
control Hostess did not live up to promises to modernize plants
and trucks but grew the company's debt while rewarding
Union members striking outside the Hostess bakery in Lenexa,
Kansas on Thursday said wages and benefits had already been
shaved substantially in the company's years of financial
struggles and further concessions were not feasible. They blame
poor management for the company's woes.
"We want to go back to work. But all I've done since I've
been here is give," said 35-year-old Dan Carlson, who mixes
dough in the Lenexa plant for $17 an hour and has worked with
Hostess for six years. "We can't keep giving."
Many union leaders and workers have been holding out hope
that some other company would step in to buy Hostess and operate
the bakeries, but Hostess has said that is not a possibility.
"There is a perception among some of our employees that a
white knight is going to come in. There is no white knight,"
Hostess management said that if enough striking workers did
not return to work by 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT) the next day, the
company would on Friday ask U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain
in White Plains, New York, who oversees its Chapter 11
reorganization, for permission to shut down and sell assets.
Hostess said if it wins permission to liquidate, it will
begin to close all operations as soon as Nov. 20, two days
before Thanksgiving, and fire all plant workers except those
needed to prepare its facilities for sale.
Earlier this week, Hostess said the strike forced it to
permanently close three of its 36 bakeries, costing 627 jobs.
The Irving, Texas-based company filed for protection from
creditors on Jan. 11, its second bankruptcy filing in less than
three years. It operates 565 distribution centers and 570 bakery
outlet stores, as well as the 33 bakeries. Hostess brands
include Wonder, Nature's Pride, Dolly Madison, Drake's,
Butternut, Home Pride and Merita. The company has roughly 17,780
Hostess has already reached agreement on pay and benefit
cuts with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, its
largest union. The Teamsters have largely been honoring the
bakery workers picket lines. But on Thursday the Teamsters
called on the bakery workers union to take a "secret ballot"
vote on a continued strike.
Ignon said that the deadline was "not hard and fast," and
that board members would need to discuss the decision to
liquidate following the expiration of the deadline.
Back on the picket line in Kansas, where workers huddled
against a cold wind across the street from the Hostess plant,
hopes for resolution were fading.
"We're all worried and scared," said 47-year-old Steve
Blakey who has worked at Hostess for 27 years and planned to
retire in two years.
"I don't want to lose my job. It's Christmas time," said
23-year-old Daniel Smith, who makes $11.64 an hour at the plant.
"But if I have to take the cuts they're talking about I can get
more from unemployment."
The case is In re: Hostess Brands Inc, U.S. Bankruptcy
Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-22052.
(Editing by Andrew Hay)