Bakery Worker

Bakery Worker

Not so much a bakery as a factory.  Walking through the rear entrance one is overtaken by a sense of confusion: a maze of crisscrossing conveyor belts, horns blaring, bells ringing, lights flashing and the incessant hum of hundreds of packing machines. This is the packaging department of Nabisco’s Philadelphia Bakery. In fact this is not so much a bakery as it is a factory. The term “bakery” conjures up images of a small shop where flour, sugar, butter and other ingredients are mixed and baked and put in display cases for purchase on Sunday morning. Or perhaps you envision elves hard at work in a large magical tree. Nothing could be further from the truth. A more appropriate image is an automobile assembly plant with its long assembly lines and workstations where the product is not as important as the process. If the process is correct the end result will be, in the one case a car, in the other Oreo cookies.

Gathering information. The author gathered information contained in this paper through participant-observation and interviews conducted over a three-week period. These interviews were informal and draw upon the reflections of the employees and their relationship to their job and fellow workers. I have worked at the Company for over eighteen years and have drawn extensively from my knowledge of the shop floor. The intent of this paper is to record the views and opinions of the employees themselves.

Philadelphia Bakery. There are eight hundred people employed at the Philadelphia Bakery, both salaried and hourly employees. This is a union shop with 670 hourly employees belonging to the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers Union. The remainder is made up of supervision, management and quality control. The average seniority is slightly over 17 years service. Women make up fifty-five percent of the workforce with 90% of them working in one department, packing.

A three shift operation. The Philadelphia Bakery is a three shift operation working between five and seven days a week depending on production needs. It is divided into eight separate departments, each having responsibility for its own portion of the production process. These departments are physically separated from each other; they include the production departments of warehouse, assembly, mixing, baking, packing, and distribution as well as the non-production departments, maintenance and sanitation.

A typical Monday. The Process. On a typical Monday morning start up, each worker reports to his or her assigned job. The starting times are slightly staggered to accommodate the production process with the assembly department starting first at about five o’clock in the morning. Assembly’s task is to “batch out” the smaller ingredients that are needed for the mix. These include soda, maltodextrin, soy lecithin, corn syrup, and other items as called for by the varieties scheduled to be run. These are then transported to the mixing department located on the third floor. The mixing department employees are responsible for the mix.

The larger ingredients (i.e. flour, water and sugar) are automatically deposited in the mixer with the employee having to add the batched items as called for during the mix. Each employee is responsible for one variety, having to make between 21 and 39 “doughs” per shift. The dough is then “dumped” into chutes that lead through the third floor to the bakeshop located on the second floor. The dough goes through two basic processes in the baking department. It is first rolled and cut then baked. An employee is stationed at each end of a 100-yard long band oven and is responsible for one or the other of these operations. A laminator and cutting machine is located at the entrance to the oven. These machines perform the function of industrial rolling pins and cookie cutters, depositing the raw dough onto the oven band.

The baker operates this oven from a workstation located 100 yards away at the oven exit where oil or topping is applied as needed. The baked product then exits the baking department on a forty-inch wide decline belt, which travels through a hold in the floor and under the cafeteria to the packing department located on the south side of the building. The packing department, in which most employees at Nabisco work, is a maze of conveyor belts and packaging machines. As the name suggests, the sole function of this department is to bag, wrap, box and bundle the product. This area has recently become highly automated. Five to ten years ago most of the product was hand packed, usually in boxes or plastic trays.

Today, over eighty-five percent of the products made at the Philadelphia Bakery are never touched by human hands. After being bundled or boxed, the products are taken by overhead conveyor belts through the south wall to the distribution department. In the distribution department, the finished product is automatically stacked on pallets then wrapped in plastic and stored until needed to fill orders. It is then retried and shipped as needed to all parts of the country.

Workers complain they are separated from the product and other workers.  The production process is behind the often-repeated complaint of the workers at Nabisco. They find themselves separated from the product, the process and each other. In fact, supervisors use scooters to travel the length of these lines to perform their job duties. Because the production lines never stop during their scheduled runs, it is not uncommon for workers to work weeks or months on the same shift and ever see each other. The exception is the packing department. Here a mostly female workforce operates packaging machines and on some lines hand packs cookies. This is the only department (excluding the cafeteria when on break) in which extended interaction between workers normally takes place. This interaction is almost exclusively verbal, and as one packer explained, “it helps pass the time.” The jobs are repetitive and characterized by the workers themselves as boring. The single largest cause of work related injury in the packing department is repetitive stress syndrome.

We are all in this together. First line supervisors and union workers. The Philadelphia Bakery personnel structure is made up of three levels: the union members responsible for actual production, the first level supervisor who duties include overseeing the production process, and management who is responsible for the overall performance of the bakery and is answerable to headquarters. While rules of conduct and performance standards are developed my management, their practical application falls to the front line supervisor on the shop floor. Since these supervisors must form working relationships with the employees on the shop floor and are dependent upon them for meeting production standards, minor breeches of conduct or policy standards are often overlooked.

In fact, these supervisors identify with the union workers in their departments and are just as likely to be critical of upper management as the union worker. By the same token, union rules prohibit supervisors from doing work normally performed by union members. This contractual prohibition is often overlooked by the departmental shop stewards who also need the help and cooperation of the supervisors to maintain a smooth working relationship. There is a general feeling that “we are all in this together” and should make the best of it.

No union member will “turn in” another union member. Some problems reach the level of disciplinary or grievance procedures. When this happens both parties realize that, whatever the nature of the problem, each party will have to eventually work together again. In these cases both parties are forced to have a short-term memory.  In cases where disputes arise between union members, there is an absolute and unequivocal rule: no union member will “turn in” another union member.”  This rule is honored by the supervisor who, on “finding out about a dispute or being present when it occurs, he will notify the shop steward and remove himself from the situation. This entails some risk since if management were to find out what had occurred they would consider the supervisor derelict in his duty.

Skilled craftsmen on the shop floor feel underappreciated and underpaid. The satisfaction and solidarity expressed by production workers was consistently at odds with the maintenance department point of view. These individuals felt that they were unappreciated and underpaid. It seems that the general atmosphere of the production floor does not promote satisfaction in these skilled trades. The maintenance department is made up of mostly mechanics, but there are also electricians, plumbers and a carpenter. These skilled tradesmen often stated that whereas the production worker could be replaced with someone “off the street” with on a short training period, they themselves could not. One mechanic offered this comment: “You guys get paid for what you do. I get paid for what I know.”

However, this is at odds with what actually happens on the shop floor. The maintenance workers actually receive more direction in terms of job assignments than the production people. Whereas the production people get their job assignment at the beginning of the week and report to that job directly, the mechanics receive their job assignments daily and sometimes even multiple assignments during the course of a shift. This often causes not only a feeling of dissatisfaction because they are not given the autonomy they feel is due skilled workers but also friction with the production people. These maintenance workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers Union but few attend any of the meetings. At some of the other Nabisco locations the maintenance people belong to a variety of skilled trades unions. There is often talk in Philadelphia of doing the same thing.

Workers socialize with each other.  Outside the confines of the bakery many of the workers socialize with each other. It is not unusual for them to frequent a bar as a group, especially on payday. Many participate in bowling leagues together. Attendance at the union Christmas party and other group functions is high. Of those who were asked if they had visited another employee’s house within the last year, all responded yes.

Workers think of themselves as union members first. Since most of the job activities are of such an impersonal, repetitive and boring nature, I assumed there would be little job satisfaction. However, when I asked a number of individuals whether they were satisfied with their job over two-thirds replied that they were.  Upon further questioning they revealed that what they were most satisfied with was the rate of pay. They felt they were well paid for the tasks that they performed and invariably credited the union with providing them with this. In fact, they took considerable pride in being union members.

One worker, a mixer, stated, “I would probably be working some place for $5.00 an hour if it weren’t for the union.” For most of the people questioned the importance of the union superseded the importance of Nabisco in terms of their personal lives. They define themselves as union members rather than as employees of Nabisco. The values of solidarity and mutual aid were developed by the workers at Nabisco as a result of their perception that they are essentially at the mercy of the company. They know that given the skill level of their jobs that they could be replaced and the individually none of them could command the wage that they receive at Nabisco elsewhere.



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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