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Knoxville Merita workers hope to rise again with better owners

9:24 PM, Nov 16, 2012   |    comments
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The demise of Twinkies grabbed a lot of the national headlines throughout Friday, but the bankrupt Hostess Company owns several brands of baked goods.  That includes the Merita brand of bread that has been a staple throughout the Southeastern U.S. for decades.

"Merita is what people here have bought their entire lives," said Bill Munsey, an employee of the shipping department of Merita in Knoxville.  "People here have eaten Merita Bread for generations. As a matter of fact, there are black and white posters of the Lone Ranger show that was an advertisement for Merita.  That's how long it has been around."

Munsey has proudly shipped loads of the beloved loafs of Merita bread for 27 years.  Just three years away from retirement, he now faces a future without a pension or any job at all.  However, he said the current group of unionized employees needed to strike out against the owners of Hostess.

"We made so many concessions the last few years with pay cuts, supposedly to keep the company going and get it out of bankruptcy.  Then they killed the contributions to our pension.  This latest demand was that we all basically take a 30 percent pay cut.  Who can afford that?  We had no choice but to strike," said Munsey.  ""If we really didn't feel like we'd be losing everything we worked for, we wouldn't be out here [on strike]."

Munsey said the actions of Hostess and its hedge-fund owners clearly demonstrated a lack of serious desire to emerge from bankruptcy.

"They were basically trying to ring every dime out of it before they could piece it up and sell it off. They're not interested in staying in business, in my opinion," he said.

Now workers at the plant say the liquidation of the company may be a blessing if it attracts quality owners dedicated to making quality bread rather than only focusing on making investors dough.

"What we would really like to see happen is someone in the baking industry and not the banking industry to buy this plant," said Munsey.

Munsey and other workers said they feel confident the Merita brand and its loyal following will attract new owners.  Rumors amid the striking workers have some hopeful that a company such as Flowers Foods may be interested in purchasing the brand.  Whatever the case, the employees said they hope new ownership is able to take over soon.

"If production stops for a long time and Merita is not on the shelves, shoppers might start buying another brand.  You do not want loyal customers to get out of the habit of buying our brand of bread," said Munsey.

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