Local No. 35: The New Orleans Bakers' Union

Stop 4 of 6 on the Trail of Crumbs tour

Bread-baking is a hard, physically demanding job. Before the Civil War, most bakery owners relied on apprenticeships and enslaved laborers to handle the workload. Postbellum bakery workers inherited a system of forced on-premises lodging, 16 to 23-hour shifts with no days off, low wages, hard manual labor, and dangerous, unsanitary conditions. The New Orleans bakers’ union took shape in the 1880s to address these concerns. Although largely a forgotten force, the New Orleans bakers’ union is an important piece of the city's baking and labor history. It is responsible for what are now considered standard labor practices (eight-hour workday, overtime, paid vacation, and safety measures).

On January 13, 1886, representatives from the local bakers’ union joined those from ten other cities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to establish the Journeymen Bakers’ National Union. In New Orleans, the Journeymen Bakers’ Union presented a list of demands at their offices at No. 52 and 54 Exchange Place (now 220 Exchange Alley). [1] Although the union occupied several different downtown addresses throughout its existence, this first recorded location was on a busy commercial thoroughfare that housed several other labor organizations. A group of fifty-three mostly small bakery owners formed a separate Baker Bosses’ Union to “support and assist the Journeymen Bakers’ Union.” [2] It was later renamed the Master Bakers Association of New Orleans and was tasked with negotiating agreements with the labor union.

By 1892, the union expanded to include ice cream and candy makers, renaming itself Union of Journeymen Bakers and Confectioners. 1892 also marked the general strike in New Orleans when several other labor movements joined together to force business owners to negotiate. The bakers’ union demands included a closed union shop, a six-day workweek, a twelve-hour day (fifteen on Friday), the abolishment of forced lodging, union product labeling, and two holidays. [3] Most of the owners agreed to the union demands. [4]

One unexpected result of the union’s action to highlight working conditions was an increased public concern not for the well-being of bakers, but customers, due to perceived unhygienic bakeries and “unclean bread.” Advertisements in the early 1900s emphasized “sanitary bakeries” and bread “untouched by human hands.” [5] The New Orleans Health Department passed several related sanitary ordinances around this time, requiring bread to be placed behind a screen or wrapped. A 1909 newspaper article described the "crusade" of the pure food department of the city's Board of Health to enforce bakery ordinances. The inspectors frequently targeted immigrant bakers in the Sicilian section of the French Quarter. [6]

The bakers' union continued to strengthen in size and power, becoming one of the city's largest labor organizations. [7] The New Orleans branch of the union, Local No. 35, opened its doors to Black bakers in 1918, a rare example of an interracial bakers' association in the South, but common in a city where Black and white laborers often worked together in the same trade. [8] A 1939 bulletin by the United States Department of Labor titled "Wages, Hours, and Working Conditions in Union Bakeries" points to a changing industry and union. As bakery work shifted from small hands-on shops to factory-type bakeries, the list of job descriptions moved beyond ovenmen, mixers, and benchmen to include machine operators, maintenance men, elevator operators, clerks, and janitors. The union bakeries in New Orleans maintained more hands-on jobs than other cities. They also had slightly lower wages and a longer workweek than other cities. [9]

Collective bargaining negotiations preceding a threatened strike in 1947 revealed that 90% of bakeries in New Orleans employed union labor. These 1,100 union bakers produced 700,000 loaves of bread per day to feed a city. [10] While the bakers’ union no longer operates in New Orleans, many of the benefits and conditions it fought for still linger in the city’s remaining traditional bread bakeries. Local No. 35 laid the groundwork for bakery workers to earn their daily bread.

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220 Exchange Place, New Orleans, Louisiana