ROCKY MOUNT — The 286 people who work in the Merita bread factory on North Church Street are out of work following Fridays announcement that parent company Hostess will seek permission to end operations and liquidate its assets. About 75 of the workers participated in a nationwide strike that started at midnight Tuesday. Hostess Brands had warned the workers to return to work by 5 p.m. Thursday or face the companys liquidation.
The deadline came and went as picketers stood around a heater under umbrellas in the rain. Its five o clock and nobodys crying, one woman yelled.
Friday morning they were still picketing and planned to stay there until the union gave the order to stop.
Now they face unemployment in a part of the state where lots of other people do, too.
The unemployment rate was 11.1 percent in Nash County and 13.6 percent in neighboring Edgecombe County in September, according to the state Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the highest in the state.
Randy Fulk, a state representative of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers International Union, said Thursday that this isnt a typical labor union strike because the workers have already made significant concessions.
Theyre not asking for more, Fulk said. Theyre just trying to keep what theyve still got.
Hostess, the parent company for brands such as Twinkies, Ho Hos and Wonder Bread, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January for the second time since 2004, and had cut wages by 8 percent and increased employee contributions to health insurance. This spring, the company notified state officials that it could lay off 617 workers in the state if it was not able to emerge from bankruptcy. Hostess has locations in 33 North Carolina counties, including about 30 at a sales office in Raleigh.
Lamont Phillips, a Rocky Mount resident and president of the unions local 503, worked in the plant for 23 years. He said the biggest reason he joined the protest is that Hostess stopped paying his pension fund about 18 months ago, when he only had about 8 years to go before he would qualify for full benefits when he retired.
To just snatch that away from me, thats not fair, Phillips said.
On Friday, Phillips, 41, said he plans to file for unemployment and look for a job.
Johnny Thomas, who worked at the plant nine years, said he started taking classes after being unhappy with the way he was treated, and plans to finish his degree now. He hopes to work with developmentally disabled adults. Thomas said he worries for those co-workers who cant go back to school. He said many of his colleagues are single parents.
A lot of people there have been there so long, and thats all theyve got is factory skills, Thomas said. Not having the professional-type skills, its hard to find work around here, because the factory industry is practically no more.
Thomas had thought the threat to liquidate was hollow, but even though it wasnt, he still thinks holding out was the best decision.
We just could not keep giving and giving and giving, Thomas said.