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A worker checks Hostess Twinkies as move through production in their trays prior to cream injection at the Interstate Bakeries Corporation facility April 20, 2005 in Schiller Park, Ill.

Twinkies -- the obscenely calorific creme-filled confections -- are back on store shelves, after a brief detour through bankruptcy.

They’re slightly smaller, but just as sweet ... unless perhaps you’re the worker with the hairnet making Twinkies in Emporia, Kansas, or Indianapolis, Ind., or Shiller Park, Ill. Because the turnaround company that took over Twinkies and other Hostess brands (a partnership of Metropoulous & Co. and Apollo Global Management) got rid of the unions for bakery workers and truck drivers. The company is now employing some of the same people who used to make Twinkies, but at significantly lower pay. Pensions have been cut as well.

A similar thing happened in 2010 in East Indianapolis. Engine-maker Navistar laid off around 700 union foundry workers and closed a factory complex there. Earlier layoffs had reduced the workforce from approximately 2,500 before the recession. The skilled manufacturing workers had been making $28/hour, says Danny Ernstes, a United Autoworkers representative and veteran millwright.

“We took about a $5/hour to $6/hour wage decrease -- a 25 percent to 30 percent cut,” says Ernstes, “and an increase in our insurance. That’s a lot of money when you’ve got a family.”

Ernstes has three kids, one of them disabled. He’s one of approximately 150 workers who have been called back to the foundry, under a new UAW contract with a Navistar subsidiary called PurePOWER Technologies. The contract incorporates significant concessions on pay, benefits and work rules.

“At the time in Indiana, there were no other jobs,” Ernstes explains of the decision he and other workers made to accept the deal, with the hope that at least some manufacturing jobs would return. “I don’t use the word ‘forced’ into it, because we made the decision democratically. And it’s still a living wage.”

Back in 2005, Alaska Airlines outsourced its baggage-handler jobs to an airline-services contractor called Menzies Aviation. At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, nearly 500 union machinists were turned into non-union contract workers -- overnight.

Their wages had averaged $13.40/hour at Alaska. The new starting wage on offer from Menzies: $8.75/hour.

Spencer Havens now works for Menzies loading bags for Alaska. He's been there for two years. “I’m one of the guys who took the jobs from those high-paid workers,” he says.

Havens is 22. He has a high school diploma and a couple years of community college. Five days a week, he loads luggage -- fast -- to meet Alaska’s guarantee of 20 minutes or less to get your bags. He’s a team leader and makes $12.25/hour, plus a $0.75/hour on-time bonus. His wife, Libby, works part-time in daycare.

“We were married June 22, 2013,” says Libby Havens as she sits with Spencer on the couch in the living room of a modest ranch house in Tacoma, Wash.

“Right now, we’re living with my grandmother,” Spencer says. Libby adds that they’d like to move out, with their two cats, “as soon as humanly possible.” Spencer agrees. “With what I get paid right now, I’d just be living paycheck to paycheck, and this way we can save up money to one day get a house.”

Havens says relations can be tense at the airport between Alaska’s remaining union workers, and workers like himself who are doing non-union contract jobs on the same planes, but for less money and without union protections. They're jobs that were once done by machinists.

Havens says he feels for the guys who lost their jobs back in 2005. “That must have been a really big hit, it must have been really bad,” he says. 

Havens has joined with other airport workers trying to organize a new union  supported by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 6. The union activists have met with airport officials and company representatives, and they’re also campaigning for a local ballot initiative that would push their pay back up toward the hourly wage that Alaska was paying its baggage handlers before the outsourcing.

Alaska Airlines and Menzies Aviation did not respond to interview requests by our deadline.

At a hearing last week in the city of SeaTac (population 27,000), where the airport is based, community and labor activists took up a chant: “What do we want? Good jobs. When do we want them? Now.”

SeaTac residents will vote in November on the “Good Jobs Initiative” that the activists support. It would set a minimum “living-wage” of $15/hour. It would cover all airport workers -- baggage-handlers and cabin-cleaners, plus parking-lot attendants, food-servers, hotel maids and others. Some small local businesses would be exempt.

There is plenty of local opposition to legislating those wage levels.

SeaTac resident Vicki Lockwood spoke at the city hearing last week. She said she doesn’t make $15/hour, adding “I’m not anti-union. But I’m anti-giveaway. And people need to acquire education and skills to make themselves worth more money.”

Scott Ostrander is general manager of the Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac which has 117 employees. Ostrander said he can’t afford to pay $15/hour. “Good jobs, decent jobs, mediocre jobs are better than no jobs," he said. "I’m going to be forced to lay people off, take away their livelihood. God, that hurts.”

Indianapolis foundry worker Danny Ernstes is sounding a bit hopeful for his future these days, in spite of the financial setbacks he's suffered. He talks about a new spirit of cooperation between the UAW, Navistar and local officials, one that could bring prosperity back to his wounded city, and more jobs back to the 75-year-old engine plant.

But Ernstes says it won’t be easy for him and fellow union workers to get over the economic beating they’ve taken.

"We kind of look at it like this,” Ernstes muses. “I got busted in the mouth -- knocked my tooth out. I forgive you, but every time I smile, my tooth is gone.”

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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