Anniversaries are often a time to look back and reflect on past triumphs (and tribulations) for individuals, couples, and organizations. 2016 marks the 130th anniversary of the founding of the Journeymen Bakers National Union of the United States in 1886, which after multiple mergers and the inclusion of Canadian members is now known as the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. The University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives are the repository for the Bakers Union’s records, with some of the items dating back to the union’s earliest days. The collection includes a diverse range of materials that includes—beyond the standard office files—photographs, publications, posters, flags, charters, and scrapbooks. A look back at the union’s history reveals a complex story with periods of prosperity and hardship, of successes leavened by struggles, and stretches of political influence coupled with periods of internal dissension.
The early history of the union is one of inspired effort by a handful of individuals in the face of truly horrific working conditions. It is also one that, at least initially, took place largely among German immigrants in New York City, who almost exclusively formed the work force in bakeries during the late 1800s. Stuart Kaufman’s history of the Bakers Union, A Vision of Unity, which extensively used the material in the University of Maryland’s collections, notes that of the approximately “5,000 bakers in New York City and another 2,000 in Brooklyn [a separate city at the time], all but a few hundred of them [were] Germans,” the remainder being mostly English immigrants. (1) In fact, the union’s newspaper, The Baker’s Journal, was for many years a bilingual, German-English publication. It was founded by George Block, a labor activist and journalist from Bohemia, in May 1885 as the Deutsche-Amerikanische Baeckerzeitung [the “German-American Bakers’ Journal”]. Five years earlier, Block had published a pamphlet describing the plight of bakery workers as part of an effort to establish a bakers union in the New York City area. The pamphlet’s survey of bakers reported that they worked, on average, “16 hours a day for five days of the week, as much as 23 hours on Saturdays, and an additional five on Sundays.” Much of the work was done in subterranean bake rooms, in which the workers also usually slept, using for mattresses “a heap of old rags on which for years not a ray of the sun shone, of the washing of which nobody ever thinks.” The elimination of this boarding system, which the bakery owners for multiple reasons were loath to see end, was among the initial goals of the Bakers Union after its founding.
It’s not hard to see why. Due to union pressure and media attention, states began to inspect and regulate the bakeries’ sanitary conditions in the early 1890s, concerned by the demonstrated ability of baked goods to transmit disease. The conditions that the first inspectors found were appalling. Kaufman tells of inspectors who discovered wastewater flowing into bread-making tubs, rotting sludge covering bakery floors, and rats so ubiquitous that they paid little notice of the bakers’ or anyone else’s presence. (2) While these inspections put pressure on owners to improve sanitation, the other indignities in the bakeries–low pay, job insecurity, favoritism, and exploitative living conditions–remained unaddressed. The bakery workers’ only option was to organize and slowly, haltingly, but ultimately successfully fight for their voices to be heard and for dignity and fairness to be achieved in the workplace.
After passage of the Wagner Act during the New Deal, which encouraged collective bargaining and protected unions’ rights to organize workers, and in the prosperous years following World War II, the Bakers Union power and political influence grew to an all-time high. The pictures in our collection bear witness to this progress: instead of pictures of exhausted workers in windowless cellars, we see pictures of presidents and first ladies, from both political parties, either standing in front of inaugural or birthday cakes baked and decorated by Bakers Union members, or meeting with Union leaders in the Oval Office or official dining rooms. George Block would perhaps be shocked at the images but no doubt pleased—and proud.
The collection also has numerous photos of the Union’s activities where of course they most often take place: throughout American and Canadian communities. For many years the Bakers Union entered a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade, and we have pictures of many of those floats. The Union has sponsored baseball teams, displayed their wares at trade shows, state fairs, and other public celebrations—anywhere the Bakers’ pride in their craft and their role in Americans’ and Canadians’ lives.
- Stuart Kaufman, A Vision of Unity: the history of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union (Bakery, Confectionery, and Tobacco Workers International Union, Kensington, MD: 1986), p.1.
- Stuart Kaufman, A Vision of Unity: the history of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union (Bakery, Confectionery, and Tobacco Workers International Union, Kensington, MD: 1986), p. 33.
Kevin P Delinger is a MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He works in the Labor Collections at the University’s Special Collections and University Archives, assisting in particular with the records of the Bakers Union.