Drummed out: candy company bans band | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Drummed out: candy company bans band 

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving hundreds of bands, floats, and marchers will wind their way through the Loop as part of the city's annual Christmas parade.

But the boys and girls in the New Frontier Marching Band, a west-side drum and bugle corps, won't get to march in the parade. The official reason the band's marching permit was denied was that its members are too young. But many west-siders think the decision was actually fallout from the labor dispute between E.J. Brach, the candy conglomerate headquartered on the west side, and its work force.

Some of the marching band's advisers are active in the labor fight against Brach, which is the parade's main sponsor. "The kids are being used to get at us," says the Reverend Lewis Flowers of the Austin Community Baptist Church, who serves as spokesman for New Frontier. "The kids are heartbroken. I guess the west side's not welcome in the parade."

Officials from Brach and parade management vehemently deny the accusation. "We have no say in who marches in the parade, and I have never even heard of that marching band," says Terri Kaminski, a Brach spokeswoman. "We have been on the west side for decades, and we are very happy to be a part of this community, and we have not treated this community with anything but respect. In fact we have even invited the Off-the-Street Club's little boy and girl of the year to ride on our float."

Brach has been a prominent part of the Austin community since the 1920s, when the company's founder, a German immigrant named Emil Brach, built a 2.2-million-square-foot facility at Cicero and Kinzie. By 1986 Brach's pretax profits were $75.6 million, and it accounted for two-thirds of the U.S. market for bagged candy, according to an article in the Financial Times. It specialized in selling penny candy by the pound and seasonal items like chocolate Easter Bunnies and candy corn.

At its peak in 1987 the company employed 3,700 workers, many of whom made more than $25,000 a year. "These are highly skilled employees who have learned the elaborate candy-cooking operation," says Rebecca Hanscom, business agent for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents Brach workers. "The average [length of service] is 18 years. These are good jobs; people want to keep them."

But the company's fortunes turned that same year, after it was purchased by Klaus Jacobs, a Swiss-based candy mogul. Under Jacobs the company lost several key contracts, cut its product line, and began losing money. In the last few years management has pushed for work-force cuts and employee wage and benefit concessions. For the last several months the employees--along with local ministers and politicians, Cardinal Bernardin, and union officials--have waged a spirited campaign against pay cuts and layoffs.

"The candy business is a seasonal industry, so there are always going to be some layoffs," says Karen May, organization director for the Midwest Center for Labor Research, which has been assisting the union and church leaders. "You might have layoffs in March, after the big rush of Easter candy. But these people are usually brought back in July."

In the last few years, however, many employees have not been brought back. Brach employees now number about 1,700. May and others believe employees are being asked to pay for management's mistakes. They worry that the company may close or move its operations to another state--or another country--where labor is cheaper. "After you've been on layoff for 12 months you're terminated from the plant," says Hanscom. "Every year more people get terminated. We fear that the layoffs might be the first step toward closing the plant."

Kaminski says the company has no plans to leave Chicago, but that they are burdened by higher than average labor costs.

"We have had some rough years, I have to be honest," Kaminski says. "We sell most of our candies in grocery stores, but in the past five years the trend has been away from groceries into mass merchandise, like K mart and Wal-Mart. We make a lot of seasonal candies, but it was not our profitable item."

In the latest round of contract negotiations the company proposed a two-tier wage scale in which starting employees make about $6 an hour.

"We're absolutely opposed to a two-tier scale," says Hanscom. "They could lay someone off at $12 and then bring them back at $6." She's already heard horror stories. "We had one woman who got laid off [from Brach] at about the same time her son got laid off from another factory," says Hanscom. "When her son went to the unemployment office, they told him he could apply for a job at Brach's for $6 an hour. He said, 'You're offering me my mom's old job at half her pay!' This woman is in really bad shape. She has a $700 mortgage and $25 in the bank."

Austin's already been hit by two decades of recession and economic relocation.

"We've lost so many factories down through the years," says Flowers. "Most of the facilities are empty. You see the results every day. People can't keep up with their payments. When the factories go there's less money in the community. You lose grocery stores, you lose local businesses. We can't afford to lose Brach's."

Over the last year the Westside Baptist Ministers Coalition, the Garfield Austin Interfaith Action Network, the Teamsters, and the Midwest Center for Labor Research formed the Save Brach's Coalition and have pleaded with Jacobs to sell the factory either to a local entrepreneur or to the employees.

But Kaminski says the company's not for sale. "[Jacobs] is determined to own this company and keep it in Chicago," she says. "I just wish these groups would get that through their head."

It was in late October 1991--at the same time that Brach was losing money and cutting its work force--that the company first made a contribution to the Christmas parade. "We saved the Christmas parade," says Kaminski. "They had no sponsors [that year]. And we stepped forward."

Brach's commitment of several hundred thousand dollars convinced other corporations to contribute. The parade is managed by the Chicago Christmas Parade Association, a not-for-profit group of corporate sponsors. But it's known as the Brach's Holiday Parade. This year's theme is "celebrating Chicago, children, and charity."

"That's ironic, because what's happening inside Brach's is anti-Chicago, uncharitable, and hurts every child of every man and woman who works for Brach's," says Hanscom.

To draw attention to their plight and embarrass Brach, coalition members proposed a float that would tell the story of one potential outcome of the situation at Brach.

"Models of the Brach Candy factory and Chicago landmarks start off looking broken, or 'deflated,' while Scrooge stirs a big pot of melting candies," reads the coalition's application to the parade association. "Then, the Spirit of Christmas Present appears and inspires Scrooge, while the skyline and factory come to life and inflate. Scrooge's frown turns to a big grin, and the kids dressed as wrapped candies pop out of the factory and dance about."

The association denied the application. "We didn't think it was an appropriate forum," says Robert Doepel, the association's president. "We didn't want to bring Brach's problems into the parade. As much as we can, we try to keep politics out of the parade. One year a POW organization wanted to drag tiger cages with prisoners and we said no, it doesn't make sense. Not that we have anything against POWs--we're all for them. [But] this is a children's parade."

A few days after rejecting the Scrooge float the association turned down the New Frontier Marching Band, on the grounds that for the last ten years only high school bands have marched in the parade.

But Flowers says New Frontier marched in the 1991 and 1992 parades. A prominent member of the Westside Baptist Ministers Coalition, Flowers maintains that the parade's supervisors rejected the marching band because his name was on the application. "These kids weren't going to be mentioning Brach's in their float; they have nothing to do with Brach's. "

Doepel says the association has no record of New Frontier having marched in previous parades. "No one's picking on these guys from the west side," Doepel says. "I've tried to stay away from the whole issue of Brach's. We don't hate anybody."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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