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Unwrapping the new Twinkie

An American icon resurfaces, but at what cost?

Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013 11:03
Lynne Huffer

Lynne Huffer is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project and the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her research focuses on contemporary feminism, the LGBT movement, and the ethics of sex.
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"So the Twinkie will survive, but what's died is the expectation that an average American worker will hold a stable, long-term job whose benefits will support her after retirement," writes Huffer [Getty Images]

So the Twinkie is back from the dead, with its sale for $410 million to the private equity firm Apollo Global Management and the food industry giant Metropoulos & Company.

Remember all the Twinkie nostalgia of last fall? The barrage of Twinkie-filled childhood stories, on-line Twinkie recipes, eBay ads for overpriced Twinkies? There was even a half-baked consumer petition to nationalise the Twinkie industry to “prevent our nation from losing her sweet creamy center.”

Whew, what a relief, the private sector has stepped in to save the sponge cake. Twinkies' new owner, Daren Metropoulos  is promising a Twinkie repackaged for the 21st century. Like the reborn Pabst Blue Ribbon beer which Metropolous purchased in 2010—another relic from another age—Twinkie will be remarketed, retro-style, with the use of social media and “some TLC,” as Metropoulos told the New York Times.

Unfortunately that tender loving care will not extend to the bakers. The factory ovens that made the Twinkies will be fired up again, but the unions that protected the wages and benefits of their workers will not be. As the New York Times reported last week, Twinkie’s “buyers are unlikely to rely as heavily on a unionised work force as the old Hostess did.”

The Twinkies story is a sobering allegory about the increasing gap between corporate profits and the diminishing economic security of average Americans. During the last five years that Hostess was in business, full-time Twinkie bakers saw their salaries drop from $45,000 to $35,000. At the same time, the Hostess CEO, Gregory F. Rayburn, tripled his own salary in 2011. Even as Hostess was declaring bankruptcy it asked the courts for permission to grant its current executive board $1.75 mn in bonuses.

Of course, many were quick to point the finger at the greedy unions, with their unrealistic demands for things like pensions, for a labor dispute that resulted in the loss of almost 20,000 jobs and the liquidation of Hostess’s assets. But industry analysts rightly point out that Hostess represents a dying breed of companies whose flagship products, like Wonder Bread and retirement benefits, are passé.

Given the demise of unions over the past fifty years, it's almost certain that the Twinkie’s resurrection will be performed by nonunionised workers. As the January report of the Bureau of Labour Statistics shows, unions have declined from a third of the work force in the 1950s to just over 10% in 2013. This is not because of greedy unions with outrageous demands. Survey data shows that an increasing percentage of the contemporary workforce would like to be unionised. It’s US labour laws and management-friendly policies that are to blame for the death of worker security.

So the Twinkie will survive, but what's died is the expectation that an average American worker will hold a stable, long-term job whose benefits will support her after retirement. Meanwhile, the salaries of CEOs have skyrocketed. Just look at the Twinkies story: Mr. Metropoulos, a corporate CEO worth $1.2 bn, successfully acquires Twinkies. At the same time, thousands of union workers are left unemployed with uncertain prospects for the future. The liquidation of Hostess amounts to nothing more than the reshuffling of money at the top.

On the cellophane wrapper is Twinkie-the-Kid, the corporate mascot who has lassoed the hearts of millions. Like the top executives, Twinkie-the-Kid will live on.  

What do we find when we unwrap the new cellophane? Our longing for Twinkies is actually nostalgia for an American dream that once seemed as sweet as those golden sponge cakes. But today that dream offers no more real sustenance than Twinkies' empty calories. 

Lynne Huffer is a Public Voices Fellow withThe OpEd Project and the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her research focuses on contemporary feminism, the LGBT movement, and the ethics of sex. She is the author of four books, including Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (Columbia U. Press, 2009).


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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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