Monday, 13 January 2020

Unions, bagels, and the mob

It all started out as a set of bakers with secret knowledge of how to make bagels properly. It became a union, ensuring that the holders of the secret knowledge were the ones to profit from it - almost more like an old craft guild but with pickets. 

And then the mob came in. 

A fantastic story over at Grub Street. Strongly recommended; superb storytelling around a story that was great to begin with.

A snippet:
The excessive hours mandated in such environments were so brutal that in the late 1920s, bagel bakers, primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe, banded together in protest. The result — Union Local 338, under the umbrella of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers (B&C) International — offered a measure of professional leverage. Beginning in the 1930s, if one wanted to run a bagel shop in Manhattan, one had no choice but to employ union bakers. They were, after all, virtually the only men in town capable of making a proper bagel, not to mention exceedingly judicious when it came to imparting their wisdom. So comprehensive was this mandate that bakery owners were prohibited from manning their own ovens at the risk of costly and relentless picket lines outside their shops. (Picketing was the official response to virtually all major labor disputes. The union prevailed every time.)

Union Local 338 never grew much past 300 bakers, but the power it held was enduring. Membership was intentionally exclusive, based on the lineage-driven, old-world tradition of passing down a generationally honed craft from father to son. On this basis, acceptance was limited to the sons of existing 338 members (with the rare son-in-law and occasional nephew sliding quietly under the rope), a structure that retained an exclusively Jewish identity. Until American-born offspring began to turn over No. 338’s roster in the 1950s, the local communicated primarily in Yiddish, its correspondence and record-keeping entirely indecipherable to outsiders. The newspaper of record, the one read by bakers during their breaks, was the Yiddish-language daily Forverts — the Forward — which today publishes online in both English and Yiddish.

Under the union, bakers’ hours were soon strictly controlled, with wages rising to match those of high-end plumbers and electricians, plus paid vacations, life insurance, and pension plans. With a direct line between union members and their fathers who worked the benches before them, it was impossible to take such gains for granted. It also made concessions nearly impossible when it came to negotiating contracts.

Ultimately, it barely mattered to shop owners. In a thriving industry that by the mid-1960s was pumping out more than 2 million bagels per week to a market only just beginning to reach beyond New York City, they could afford it. With their industry grossing some $20 million per year, these men purchased homes on Long Island, drove fancy cars, and sent their children to prestigious colleges. It was a copacetic ecosystem, working out favorably for all involved.

Naturally, the Mafia wanted in.

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