Founded as the Journeyman Bakers National Union of the United States in 1886, the bakers union was renamed the Journeyman Bakers' and Confectioners' International Union just four years later when confectionery workers began joining its ranks. Acknowledging both its expansion into Canada and its decision to reorganize itself into an industrial union, the union changed its name to the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union in 1903. With the exception of a twelve year period (1957-1969) when the union split and the American Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union also existed, it remained the BCWIU until it merged with the Tobacco Workers International Union in 1978 to become the Bakery, Confectionery, and Tobacco Workers International Union. After its 1999 merger with the American Federation of Grain Millers, the union adopted its current name, The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union.
The earliest efforts to organize the bakers took place in New York City in the 1880s, with potential members coming overwhelmingly from the German immigrant community. Stuart Kaufman's history of the Bakers Union, A Vision of Unity, notes that of the approximately 7,000 bakers in New York City at the time, only several hundred of them were not German (Kaufman, p.1). The union's newspaper, The Baker's Journal, was founded in May 1885 as the Deutsche-Amerikanische Baeckerzeitung (the "German-American Bakers' Journal") by George Block, a labor activist and journalist from Bohemia, and it would become and remain a bilingual, German-English publication for several decades.
Block was a central figure in the union's early years, the closest thing the union had to a founding father. Five years earlier, he had published a pamphlet as part of his efforts to establish a bakers union in the New York City area in which he described the truly horrific working conditions found in bakeries of the period. Its survey of bakers reported 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 on filthy rags or flour sacks. The workers, though, were not the only people at risk. Health and food safety concerns prompted states to begin inspecting and regulating bakeries' sanitary conditions in the early 1890s, and the first inspectors found 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 (Kaufman, pp 1, 33). 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. Through organized resistance, bakery and confectionery workers slowly began to address those issues as well.
From its founding until 1912, the bakers union's secretary was its leader. Beginning in 1912 the union instituted a four-person leadership committee; nevertheless, committee members looked and deferred to Andrew Myrup as the de facto head of the union (he was treasurer, secretary-treasurer, and finally president during that time). In 1941, the union created the office of president, and it has maintained that structure to the present day.
A new challenge arose in the early years of the 20th century, though, that threatened to erase those gains: the purchase and consolidation of smaller bakeries by large corporate conglomerates. Called "The Bread Trust" by unions and the progressive press, these corporate bakeries confronted unionized bakers on two distinct levels: the bakers' professional identity as skilled craftsmen, and their political identity as organized workers with a measure of self-determination. Though bakers, especially those in large cities, were witnessing the economic transformation of the business of baking into an industry, many still saw themselves as craftsmen. Industrial consolidation represented an existential threat to the last vestiges of their existence as more than simple laborers. For all bakers, though, whether industrial or craft, urban or rural, these large companies threatened to fatally undermine both their ability to organize and the gains that unionization had already achieved. Confronted with a striking local, a corporate bakery with region-wide production could take advantage of ever-improving transport networks and simply ship baked goods in from other facilities. The union was then confronted with a dilemma: either the local could continue its strike with the odds stacked heavily against it, or the union could attempt to fight back on a regional or company-wide scale, a notoriously difficult task. The bakers thus confronted a problem in the 1910s and 1920s that many union would face again in the 1980s, when globalized trade began to revolutionize nations' economies.
Unsurprisingly, the Great Depression badly weakened the union, just as the 1893 depression had done in the union's infancy. Once-thriving locals that had improved wages and working conditions now watched their membership decline precipitously, as widespread joblessness and members' inability to pay dues took its toll. Even those bakers who managed to find work felt powerless to stop employers' violation of contract provisions or union rules, with a large supply of unemployed and increasingly desperate workers available to take the place of any worker who might complain. Even so, the 1930s were not a unmitigated disaster for the union. With the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, collective bargaining became much more common and unions gained some much-needed leverage. There was a learning curve for both employers and the union's local representatives with respect to negotiating and communicating, but by the mid-1930s bakers union officials perceived both sides becoming more accustomed to a less antagonistic relationship (Kaufman, p. 118).
While clashes between the union and bakeries never disappeared, the new relationship helped lead to an unprecedented level of prosperity for the union and its members in the boom years following World War II. By the early 1950s, the union had reason to believe this growth and stability would endure. Instead, the mid- and last-1950s would begin what was arguably the most difficult period in the union's history.
In 1956, Curtis Sims, the union's secretary-treasurer, informed colleagues of his concerns that the B&C president, James Cross, had been diverting union funds for his own personal use. After attempts to handle the issue internally failed and Cross's behavior grew bolder--including accusations that his supporters physically assaulted critics at the union's 1956 convention--Sims and his allies made their charges public in March 1957. A chain of events followed that would lead to the expulsion of the bakers union from the AFL-CIO nine months later, the simultaneous creation of a new, AFL-CIO-supported bakers union (the American Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union--aka "the ABC"), and federal prosecution of Cross and several aides in the early 1960s.
One other important effect resulted from the split in the union and the creation of the ABC: dozens of legal battles between the two bakers unions over the union's assets, often fought out local affiliate by local affiliate. The B&C attempted to hold onto the membership by maintaining ownership of each local's assets and emphasizing its control of the union's pension and welfare funds, part of a generally ineffective effort to stem the rapid re-affiliation of many locals to the ABC that occurred throughout 1958 and beyond. (Many of the legal files contained in Series V of this collection concern this B&C v. ABC litigation.) Eventually, locals that re-affiliated with the ABC comprised over more than 60% of bakers union membership (Kaufman, p. 153). After the conviction of Cross and five other B&C leaders on federal charges including embezzlement and conspiracy, the B&C's strategy oscillated between exploring an affiliation or merger with the Teamsters, on the one hand, and positioning itself as advantageously as it could for a possible reunification with the ABC on the other. Toward the end of the 1960s, after a very brief and unsuccessful affiliation with the Teamsters, the desire for reunification gained momentum and was successfully achieved in 1969 under the combined leadership of the ABC's Daniel Conway and the B&C's Max Kralstein.
The subsequent history of the bakers union mirrors that of the American labor movement as a whole since the 1970s: the loss of jobs and members to non-union and international markets, and dogged efforts to respond to these losses. Believing that success is built upon solidarity, the union has completed two mergers since reunification. In 1978, recognizing that they and the Tobacco Workers International Union increasingly negotiated with the same multinational companies, the bakers union welcomed TWIU members into their ranks. Twenty years later, the BC&T did the same, for much the same reason, with the American Federation of Grain Millers. As of 2017, the BCTGM has almost 67,000 members throughout the United States and Canada.
The following list displays the evolution of the names of the BCTGM, and the active years of former Presidents.
Journeyman Bakers National Union of the United States
- 1886-1888: George Block
- 1888-1890: August Delebar
Journeyman Bakers' and Confectioners' International Union
- 1890-1892: August Delebar
- 1892-1895: George Horn
- 1895-1897: Henry Weismann
- 1897-1899: John Schudel
- 1899-1903: Frank Harzbecker
Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union
- 1903-1907: Frank Harzbecker
- 1908-1912: Otto Fischer
- 1912-1943: Andrew Myrup
- 1943-1950: Herman Winter
- 1950-1952: William Schnitzler
- 1952-1957: James Cross
Leadership during the split of the bakers union:
A. American Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union:
B. Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union:
- 1957-1961: James Cross
- 1961-1962: James Landriscina
- 1962-1969: Max Kralstein
Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union (post-merger)
- 1969-1978: Dan Conway
- 1978: John DeConcini
Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union
- 1978-1992: John DeConcini
- 1992-1999: Frank Hunt
Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union
- 1999-2012: Frank Hunt
- 2013-present: Dave Durkee
Delinger, Kevin. 2016, October 20. "130 Years of Progress: The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, 1886-2016." UMD Special Collections & University Archives (blog). Accessed at: https://hornbakelibrary.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/bakers-union-celebrates-130-years/
Kaufman, Stuart. 1986. A Vision of Unity: The History of The Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. Kensington, MD: The Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union.