Is that a Twinkie in my hand? Hard to tell in a 50-year-old picture, but it could have been. When I was five, my mom helped keep Hostess in business. She frequently brought those little cakes home as treats when she could afford to buy them on my father’s salary as a coal miner, and I would find one in my rectangular tin lunch box with the metal clasp—a product that went the way of Twinkies long ago.
When the maker of Twinkies announced it was closing last week, my Facebook newsfeed filled up with nostalgic messages from people of a certain age. Friends mourned the loss of those cream-filled vanilla cakes and speculated about how state fairs would replace the ultimate invitation to a heart attack—the deep-fried Twinkie. I smiled and scrolled on down the page, thinking that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought a Twinkie or a Sno-Ball or a Ding Dong.
And although the CDC reports that 37.5% of U.S. adults are obese, I suspect I’m not the only consumer who hasn’t bought a Twinkie in a while. If I want to splurge on calories, I can think of many more interesting ways to seduce my taste buds, especially as the holiday season approaches. Ever have Trader Joe’s or Williams Sonoma’s peppermint bark, for instance? Or I could make my famous Chocolate Ganache Torte, a dessert with a crust made of butter, sugar and pecans; filled with ganache made from a pound of chocolate and two cups of heavy cream; and drizzled with a homemade caramel sauce that calls for even more butter, sugar, and cream. So if I can’t stick to a sensible diet that limits carbs, red meat, and fats, I’d be a Ding Dong if I wasted my binges on Twinkies.
But some things never change. News outlets latched onto a story that temporarily filled the post-election void when Hostess blamed the employees’ union strike and their refusal to accept lower wages and benefits. Conservatives were quick to denounce the union and to say that it was proof the government’s policies were destroying businesses. Liberals were quick to point out that the union had twice helped the company recover from declarations of bankruptcy by accepting company demands. In that same period, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CEO’s pay was raised from $750,000 to $2.5 million so that when his pay was cut during bankruptcy, he would get larger compensation.
And, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, though my coal miner father would rail at me from his grave for saying such a thing. Strikes did indeed contribute to the decline of the coal industry. But my father worked in dangerous conditions that most coal companies only addressed when the miners went out on strike. One of those strikes helped my father keep health benefits that would cover the care he required when a mine roof collapse crushed his foot and later, when he died a slow death from black lung caused by coal dust.
When I began teaching in Maryland, school system employees were given the choice to join the union or to pay a representation fee that was almost as much as the union dues but provided none of the legal protections that union members received. When I hesitated, my father said, “You join that union, girl. If there’s a union, there must be a need for it.” So I did. And at the end of my fourth year, when the school’s enrollment declined, union rules demanded that the teacher with the least tenure be given another placement. I was forced to interview at other schools, and though I was quickly offered positions at three schools, I left the school bitter that a teacher who was widely acknowledged as incompetent kept her position because she had 25 years in the system.
Unions need to find ways to advocate for workers’ rights without giving protection to workers who are lazy and incompetent. But in order to do that, they need to be able to trust that companies care as much about employees as they care about getting rich. And until that can happen, neither side will keep for long what it fights so hard to gain.
That is the lesson that Hostess serves us as it closes its doors. Because if we do as my sixth grade teacher said and use our heads for something besides hat racks, only a Ding Dong would fail to see where that path leads.
So what’s your modern-day Twinkie indulgence? It will be interesting to see if it’s still around in five years.