Bakery Worker

Bakery Worker

Baking company employee and shop steward. As an employee of the baking company for 13 years, I have come to understand the baking industry well. For the past three years, I have been a shop steward. My duties as a steward include grievance handling and “first step” enforcement of the collective bargaining agreement. It is my responsibility to understand the daily problems workers may have and resolve problems to the best of my capability.

The breadmen. The area of the plant where I work is downstairs in bread production. There are five job categories: divider operator, moulder operator, pan stacker, lid operator and oven operator. However, the job titles are described by the workers in the masculine: “dividermen”, “mouldermen”, “lidmen” and “ovenmen”. By and large, 99% of the workers in the plant are men which may explain these masculine terms.  However, even when a woman performs one of these jobs, she is still referred to in the masculine.

The baking system works like a factory. The baking system works like a factory, but there is no team structure because the work is highly automated. Generally, one person performs a job in a work area. Dough is mixed upstairs then dropped down a chute to a machine called a divider. The divider cuts the dough into one pound or a half-pound pieces. The dividerman’s job is to make sure the dough is not too heavy or too light; he performs this duty by adjusting the controls that set the weight of the bread. The moulderman’s job is to make sure the dough is formed correctly by setting guides that mold the dough for the correct size of pan. In addition, he is responsible for changing the guides for the different varieties of breads and for changing the settings on the grease machine. The correct setting of this machine assures that the grease falls directly into the pan. Finally, the moulderman has to add flour to the hopper so that the dough doesn’t stick to the machinery. The pan stacker’s job is to put pans on the line and take pans off the line. Because this areas has two machines (stacker and the unstacker), it is considered the most dangerous area of the plant; the pan stacker is responsible for loading pans on the unstacker and for unloading pans from the stacker. There are five different varieties of pans that we use for the different sizes of bread. The ovenman’s job is to bake the bread at the correct temperature and duration. He is also responsible for putting the correct topping on the bread, e.g. rice flour, sesame seeds, oats, bran, etc.

When there are “stick ups” and stuck pans you help each other out. There is one superintendent in the bread production area and two assistants. Our superintendent is Vic, a short man of about fifty-five. Vis is from Oklahoma and very difficult to get along with unless you see things his way. His office is elevated about three feet off the ground and offers a view of the moulder and divider areas. The areas not in his view are the bread oven and the pan stacker area. The dividers and moulders are relatively easy areas to work in, but the workers are always in total view of the boss.

When something goes wrong, such as the moulder man forgets to put flour in the hopper and dough sticks to the machinery, it is called a “stick-up”. This means the whole system must be shut down so that the dough can be scraped off the machinery and the flour replaced in the hopper. When this occurs, Vic runs out of his office and assists in the cleaning process and yells at the moulderman. The pan stacker is responsible for keeping pans on the line, but the pans often stick together and won’t separate. When this happens, the moulderman or the ovenman are supposed to help the pan stacker by throwing pans by hand until the pan unstacker starts operating.

The pans are old and hard to separate, and when the divider is cutting two hundred loaves per minute, it is hard to keep up. Meanwhile, pans are being stacked on the pan stacker. This machine often jams up because the pans are in such terrible shape. When this machine jams up for even a short period of time it shuts the oven down and bread begins to burn. A loud siren goes off and again Vic comes running from his office. It is critical that co-workers help each other so they don’t get reprimanded by the boss; and, more importantly, it can be very dangerous when both the pan stacker and the pan unstacker are down at the same time. All these jobs are interrelated; if one worker is in trouble and the co-workers come to his aid, then the worker in trouble is less likely to be reprimanded.

 No casual talking on the line.  Casual talking on the line is forbidden, so this must be done when the boss is not looking. In the case of the moulderman, he might walk over to the pan area to assist the pan stacker to give the appearance of helping but, in fact, may be doing a little socializing. The moulderman on the day shift says he always tries to do a good job but, “we work long shifts and it’s hot in here. I need to have some kind of communication with other workers to keep me from going stir crazy.”

Smokers more likely to get more hours. Breaks are an important time of the day to socialize. There are two break rooms in the plant; one is for smokers and the other is for non-smokers.  Smokers tend to get along with each other. Perhaps they get along so well because they’re society’s new outcasts. Like they say, there’s safety in numbers. The smokers’ break room is small and workers need to sit close to each other. This break room is much more intimate than the non-smokers’ break room and there is more conversation among the workers. Generally the smokers’ break room is much livelier and friendlier with more comaraderie. The non-smoking break room is larger with less communication. But, there is air conditioning and color TV for the enjoyment of the workers. Generally, a new worker will have a better chance of getting more hours if he smokes because most of the foremen smoke and they get to know the  smoker on a personal basis.

Don’t cross the line. It is not wise for a new employee to visit with the boss in the elevated office.  This sort of behavior is looked down on by the other workers and he will probably be called “daddy’s boy” or a “kiss ass”. It’s fine for the boss to visit the worker, but the worker is in danger of getting a bad reputation with his co-workers if he dares to cross that line.

Bosses are not invited to retirement parties. The only time workers get together outside the plant is for retirement parties. When a popular worker retires, many workers attend with their wives. On the other hand, when an unpopular worker retires attendance is low. Most of the attendees are retired themselves and bosses never attend functions in fear of verbal arguments or physical confrontations. Parties are always thrown by workers with no financial support from company. There seems to be a distinct class difference between the boss and worker.

The kids and their burn stripes. A new employee, regardless of age, is referred to as a “kid”. This is true even if a younger senior worker is referring to a new older worker. This is because new employees are more prone to accidents. Most new workers get burned easily when handling hot pans and most older workers crack jokes about the burn stripes received by the greenhorns.

Junior workers stuck on the late night shifts. Often times, workers with more seniority have the benefit of going home early and newer workers have to stay. On Mondays and Fridays, workers can’t go home until all the work on the schedule is completed. If a senior worker is scheduled to work more than ten hours, a junior worker, who is qualified to do the specific job of the senior worker, is called in to relieve the senior worker. The junior worker is more often than not stuck on the late night shifts, working twelve or fourteen hours while the senior worker gets to go home in seven or eight hours. This creates animosity between the senior and junior employees.

Union identity.  Most workers have little to say about the union and participation at union meetings is low. However, the most important purpose of the union for workers is the seniority system that is strictly enforced by the union along with the grievance procedure. Job bidding for shifts is also important.

They like their good pay and secure jobs, but want something better. Workers are appreciative of the good wages they make and judge their working conditions in terms of flexibility in working hours and time off to be spent with the families and friends. There are approximately two hundred and fifty workers in the bakery with little upward mobility to management positions. A number of workers are enrolled in the local community college. Most realize that their jobs are secure, but few have serious intentions of spending the rest of their lives in the bakery. Simply put, this is a good pay job for right now, but there are other things the average baker would rather be doing.


Epilogue, 2012

Reading my essay brought back a lot of memories! And I really enjoyed your class.  There have been so many changes since 1993.

The smokers’ break room. Nowadays, most of the bakers do not smoke and neither do the supervisors, but the small smokers’ break room is still there.

Women at the bakery. Now women work throughout the plant. The supervisor’s job, once held by the mean man from Oklahoma back in 1993, is now held by a woman.  Who would have thought that back then?

Surveillance. Other changes in the bakery include the use of cameras.  The supervisor doesn’t look out from the elevated office anymore because cameras are positioned all over the plant.  And the employer now scours through the video to find violations of company rules, and then the videos are used to discipline our members.

The Hostess strike. The other interesting developments in the baking industry include the failure of Wonder Bread (Hostess Brands) and the sale of Sara Lee to Bimbo.  The BCTGM had a nation-wide strike against Hostess Brands due in large part to the company’s unilateral decision to stop making Pension contributions.  In addition to the removal of the seven (7) hour day, the company also removed key provisions of our seniority rights clause and lowered wages and benefits substantially.  The strike began on November 11, 2012 and ended on November 21, 2012.  At the Sacramento bakery only four members out of 135 crossed the picket line.  Wonder was once the largest baking company in the world.

The sale of Sara Lee.  Earthgrains/Sara Lee, the plant where I worked from 1982 through 1998, was recently purchased by Bimbo Bakeries, USA.  Bimbo is now the largest baking company in the world and it started in Mexico in the 1940’s as a small tortilla bakery.

Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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