A wonderful article by Carrie W. Allen on the conditions of bakery workers, the history of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers, and the rolling strikes in New York City’s large and small bakeries.
‘The Bakers’ Strike vs. The Bread Trust’ by Carrie W. Allen from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No. 1. July, 1910.
REBELLING against oppressively long hours, indescribably filthy conditions, and pitifully low wages, the bakers in the big New York factories and many of the small shops, on May Day went out on strike.
“We can’t speed it up such long hours any more, It knocks us out. We want a nine-hour day. It’s only a little to you, but it would mean a lot to us.”
This had been the burden of the plea they had made to their bosses.
“Do you know what a nine-hour day would cost me?” thundered a big boss baker. “It would cost me $8,000 a year.”
He was thinking in terms of money. The bakers were thinking in terms of life.
They were thinking of the long sizzling summer nights with the heat of the bakeries ranging from 105 to 115 degrees. Stifling nights when the weak would drop from exhaustion, and the strong would be sapped of all their strength.
The furious pressure of the work, added to the cruelly long hours, sucked all strength from the bakers’ muscles and all stamina from their nerves.
Many of the bakers had never heard of a union. Some of the older men remembered the beginning of the struggle, when in 1879, George Block first attempted to organize the bakers. At that time, the wages in the baking industry averaged $4 a week and poor compulsory board with the employer. The hours were eighteen daily, and twenty-four on Saturday, often running to twenty-six.
Out of the 6,300 bakers in New York, only twelve were married, and they kept this fact a secret from their masters. Children did not know their fathers and cried at their approach.
The insufficient hours of sleep, long hours in the heated atmosphere, and low standard of life engendered by the sweating system, resulted in the physical and moral degeneracy of the men.
Determined to lift the bakers out of the mire which all but engulfed them, two heroic men, George Block and Charles Iffland, went steadily on with their work of education and organization.
The first effective strike occurred in 1886, when a war was successfully waged against the boarding system. As a result of this strike, all the bakeries in New York were unionized, the hours reduced to twelve daily and fourteen on Saturday, with wages ranging from $12 to $16 a week.
The big boss bakers became alarmed at the increasing self-respect of the bakers, who were marrying and establishing little homes. The shorter work-day meant less profits, and in 1889 the same men who are fighting the union today, threw every union man out of the shops, and sought to re-establish old conditions.
By 1909, conditions in the Jewish and Slavonic bake-shops were as bad as they had been in 1884, with wages ranging from $12 to $20 a month and never-ending hours. Charles Iffand, now International Organizer of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers, with Max Kazimirsky and other union men, went into these shops, and said to the toil-degraded bakers, “You shall not drag the bakers trade in the mire like this. You shall not work under these intolerable conditions.” They threw them out of the shops, they compelled them to go on strike. It was heroic work. It was righteous work.
During the nine long weeks of the general strike on the East side, the bakers were clubbed and beaten, they were arrested and sent to the Island, their meetings were broken up, they were denied the right of free assemblage and free speech. Despite all this, the solidarity of these hitherto unorganized workers remained unbroken until the strike was won, and every shop was unionized.
The Jewish bakers had begged the men in the big up-town factories to come and help them in their struggle, and had been refused. These men had been exploited until they had no hope of ever bettering their condition. Why rebel, when it was evidently intended that all of a baker’s life energy should go into the making of bread.
But now, a year had passed, and rumors were abroad that the Jewish bakers had won great things through their union. A nine-hour day instead of eighteen daily and twenty-four on Saturday. Wages ranging from $14 to $24 a week instead of $12 to $20 a month. And above all, the prospect of establishing little homes, with happy wives and children.
With courage born of hope, the uptown bakers formulated and made their demands.
Of course the bosses were amazed. Had not the bakers worked for years in their dens like slaves? And whoever heard of slaves demanding a shorter work day? Did not these bakers know that less hours of work for them meant less profits for the bosses?
The demands of the bakers grew more insistent. A nine-hour day, $1 a week more wages all along the line, better sanitary conditions, and recognition of the union.
Not more than six hundred of the bakers were members of the union, but the spirit of revolt spread from shop to shop. The mechanism of capitalist production had united the bakers. They had worked together, and suffered together. They made their demands together and on May Day, more than 2,000 group-conscious bakers, went out on strike together.
At once the shops of Jersey City and Hoboken were called upon to supply the customers of the struck New York shops. Rather than be used to supply the scab firms with bread, the Jersey bakers walked out. The Yonkers and Brooklyn bakers also joined the strike, and by the end of May, the shops controlled by the Bread Trust were so badly crippled that they were turning out no rolls and very little bread.
“Conditions in the big shops are much worse than we knew before the strike,” said Organizer Iffand. The men have worked twelve and thirteen hours straight, and fifteen and sixteen on Saturday. Wages of the oven men in some of the largest places have been $16 a week, kneaders $13 and $14, and helpers $9 and $10 a week. Some of the helpers, the men who fire the ovens, have been compelled to work sixteen and seventeen hours daily.
In many bakeries, no overtime was allowed. As one baker put it, “We had to pull a time-keeper when we went in, but never when we went out, and it was mostly twelve and thirteen hours straight.” “Straight” means without time for lunch.
Before the formation of the Bread Trust, in some of the bakeries, the men only worked ten hours straight, and were paid for overtime. After the big boss bakers had organized their union, they said to the bakers, “No more overtime. Hereafter you work as long as there is work. to do.”
Because of the extreme sharpness of the knives in the scaling machines, accidents are frequent in the bakeries. A moment off guard, a moment of weariness, means the loss of a finger or a hand. In one bake-shop, no less than seven fingers were sacrificed within two years. Since the beginning of the strike, several of the scabs have been injured. One poor unfortunate working in Schultz’s bakery, lost his entire hand in the scaling machine, the machine that cuts the loaves of bread.
Toughs recruited from the slum districts of nearby cities have been brought under promise of big wages to break the strike. These scabs are not bakers, they are of the lowest order of men, they know nothing of cleanliness, and yet they are being used by the respectable master bakers to furnish the people with bread.
The scabs working in the bakeries are lodged and fed on the premises. As there are no conveniences for lodging men, conditions are unsanitary and indecent. In Fleischmann’s “model” shop, men sleep in the room which contains the bags of flour. The Board of Health told the committee of bakers who went to make a complaint, that nothing could be done about it, and that they would not be used as a cat’s paw to help the bakers win their strike.
When the stable men were ordered to make up the beds, they flatly refused, saying, “We are not here to make beds, especially for scabs.” The proprietor of the famous Fleischmann bread-line hearing this, said, “It is not enough that the dogs of bakers outside are giving me trouble, but you dogs must make trouble for me also.”
Some of the old men who have worked long years helping to build up the fortune of the charitable Fleischmann family, say they will never under any circumstances, go back to work for a man who after all those years of faithful service, would call them “dogs of bakers.”
Many people ask why the drivers are not out, as the Bakery and Confectionery Workers are organized along industrial lines, The answer is easy. In addition to a respectable wage, they are given a commission on sales. Cushman’s drivers are given stock in the shops as well. The drivers are petty bosses, they fancy they belong to the capitalist class, and of course they have nothing in common with the working class.
The union organizers asked the engineers to come out, but they could not do so without receiving orders from their officials, in this, as in other strikes, we have the shameful spectacle of union engineers furnishing power for scab labor. And they talk of the solidarity of labor. If there was any real solidarity of labor, it would not take long to settle a strike. Many of the union men wear scab clothes, scab hats, scab shoes, and they are now eating scab bread. In the division of the workers lies the weakness of the workers.
The strike of the bakers is marked by all of the incidents of other strikes. Hires Pinkerton thugs beat and club the pickets, and unlawful arrests are constantly made. In spite of all this, a fine spirit of solidarity is manifest among the strikers.
Realizing the necessity of arousing the public, about the middle of May a group of women were organized for the purpose of carrying on a house to house campaign.
The wives of the bakers have done valiant work on the upper East side, persuading the delicatessen and grocery stores to carry union-made bread, and distributing literature among the people. Another group of Socialist and Trade Union League women have concentrated on the upper West side, and for weeks have gone from one apartment to another urging the women to buy only union label bread.
Thousands of leaflets bearing the caption “Are You Eating Unclean Bread” have been distributed. Committees of bakers have followed up the work by flooding the districts with hundreds of thousands of their “Appeal to the Public.”
More than 15,000 of a special strike edition of The Call were sold on May 21st by the bakers and their wives, a committee of women taking charge of the sale. Demonstrations have been held in Union Square by the bakers, and open-air meetings in the crowded thoroughfares by the women.
Women’s auxiliaries have also been organized in the Bronx, in Jersey City, and in Brooklyn.
As a direct result of all this agitation, orders are pouring in for union-made bread. The small shops have settled, and with extra men, are scarcely able to meet the demand for bread bearing the union label.
The factories controlled by the Bread Trust are crippled: Many of them are turning out sour bread. Wagons return to the factories laden with scab-made bread which the people refuse to buy. The strike is costing the master bakers thousands of dollars a day. Sooner or later they must settle, but each one dreads to be the first.
The struggle is on between the masters of the bread, and the makers of the bread. To the public, this strike is a question of clean bread. To the bakers, it means a chance for life. The men who have stood long weary hours making our bread, are now fighting for prestige. They want to elevate the trade of bread making into a respectable clean trade. The enemy that they fight is the Bread Trust.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v11n01-jul-1910-ISR-gog-Corn-OCR.pdf