Class power: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, November 2021

Two blasts of the two-tone metal whistle sounded most early afternoons in the 1960s, announcing the Helms Bakery man’s arrival in our San Bernardino neighborhood. He drove a bright yellow and blue Chevy panel truck emblazoned with the company logo and slogan “Daily to your Door.” The kids and housewives swarmed the truck on hearing the whistle and the driver stopped to open the double back doors to reveal long wooden and glass-fronted drawers redolent with the smells of yeast, flour, and sugar. Those drawers were stocked with freshly baked cookies, glazed and jelly donuts, cream puffs and pastries, while the center section carried dozens of loaves of bread and assorted cakes. Many were still warm from the oven.

I had my Polish family’s love for hearty European breads, but I credit the Helms Bakery truck for my love of American pastries. To this day, I’ve never met a bakery or donut shop I didn’t like. I’ve carried that love for bread and pastries throughout my life and my travels, to the bagels and pizzas of New York City and the cultured, high fat buttery richness of baked goods in Paris. The wildly popular Helms Bakery trucks drove hundreds of miles each week, but ultimately they were doomed, killed off by the advent of supermarkets. These large chain grocery stores stocked products from other less expensive bakeries, as well as corporate bakeries like Wonder Bread, that delivered once or twice a week. Helms ceased operations in 1969, and the 11-acre Los Angeles Helms Bakery complex was bought by the Marks family in the early 1970s. Today, the Helms Bakery District in Culver City is a shopping mall, one of the rare examples of adaptive reuse of historic structures in a Los Angeles hell-bent on wiping out its history faster than it’s acknowledged.

I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area which is home to hundreds of traditional and artisanal bakeries. Some like Arizemdi Bakery are worker-owned-and-operated cooperatives, or like the black-owned Rize Up sourdough micro-bakery are artisanal small businesses. Started in 1983, Acme Breads is virtually a Bay Area institution while Firebrand Breads, begun in 2008, is coming on strong. San Francisco was also home to the Wonder Bread/Hostess Cake corporate factory which memorably scented the air around 1525 Bryant Street until 2005, when Hostess Brands’ parent company International Bakeries went bankrupt.

Described as “yeasty, jammy, and artificial” by Brock Keeling, Wonder Bread had become synonymous with the blandest of “white bread culture.” Unfortunately the International Bakeries bankruptcy also took down the 149-year-old Parisian Bakery which produced San Francisco’s signature sourdough bread. “Based on a recipe from French bakers,” according to Carl Nolte, Parisian “was established in 1859, the year San Francisco’s government was taken over by vigilantes.” Parisian’s closing didn’t sit well with its employees. “‘They are white bread people in a French bread market,’ Boudin [Bakery] owner Giraudo said, and the laid-off workers agreed. ‘It was all about numbers’.” The contrast between progressive communitarian bakeries versus corporate capitalist bakeries was never starker.

Bread is poetically and culturally the “staff of life” for Western Europeans. The phrase “to break bread” means to share and eat a meal with others, to engage in comfortable friendly interactions, to create community by breaking off pieces of a bread loaf to make sure everyone is fed. It is the action fundamental to defining Christianity as embodied by Jesus feeding the multitude and the Last Supper. I once baked a dozen loaves using a recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book for a friends’ hippie wedding in 1972 on the campus of Ventura College. My crew and I had unsuccessfully attempted a marijuana smoke-in earlier that year, so two of the bread loaves were laced with weed to circumvent campus security.

Certainly my taste for bread and pastries hasn’t been the healthiest. But corporate snack bakers like Nabisco (now owned by Mondelēz International) haven’t helped. I remember being fascinated with the packaging for Barnum’s Animal Crackers at three years old and I still have a yen for Ritz Crackers. And don’t get me started on Oreo Cookies dipped in milk. The conflict between the wholesome, life-sustaining goodness of community-level bakeries versus the unhealthy greed and exploitative practices of corporate bakeries has played out once again in the recent Nabisco workers strike and boycott.

Nabisco’s parent company Mondelēz International has been criticized for extensive deforestation around the world as a consequence of their cocoa and palm oil harvesting practices. In 2015 they were accused of price-fixing in wheat futures and, in 2021, they were named in a class action lawsuit alleging child slavery and forced labor by eight former enslaved Malian child workers. Mondelēz has been outed for terrible business and labor practices in this country as well. Using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse, the corporation closed its Atlanta, Georgia and Fair Lawn, New Jersey Nabisco food processing facilities and laid off over 1,000 union workers. In May 2021, labor contracts between Nabisco and the BCTGM (Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union) expired at the Portland, Oregon; Richmond, Virginia; and Chicago, Illinois factories, without replacement contracts in place.

As far back as 2018 Nabisco said it would no longer offer pension benefits, replacing them with a 401(k) program. The company also wanted mandatory weekend work, expanding 8-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts without overtime pay, and instituting a 2-tier healthcare plan with increased costs for new hires. During the pandemic employees worked 6 to 7 days per week for 12- to16-hour shifts.  With negotiations between the company and union at a standstill for nearly three weeks, and with rumors that Nabisco planned to outsource production to plants in Mexico, the Portland BCTGM Union Local 364 walked out, then struck on August 10, 2021.

Nabisco had increased its revenue by 12% from the previous year, and Mondelēz nearly doubled its profits in the second quarter of 2021, all while demand for its snacks soared during the pandemic. The Portland strike quickly spread to Aurora (Colorado), Chicago and Addison (Illinois), Norcross (Georgia), and Richmond (Virginia). The plight of Nabisco workers and their strike generated widespread solidarity. Celebrities, public figures, politicians, political organizations, and news media expressed support for the striking workers. Other unions (Teamsters) and a sports team (Portland Thorns women’s soccer team) walked the BCTGM picket line while members of the Railroad Workers United refused to deliver supplies to the Portland baking facility.

Public opinion sided with the workers. Nabisco’s attempts to gloss over the plight of the workers and their strike, as when the company partnered with Pokémon to produce “limited edition” Oreo cookies, were excoriated. A consumer boycott was called resulting in store shelves full to overflowing with unpurchased Nabisco products. Mondelēz’s stock price dropped 2.4% in a month, but the company played hardball. They hired scab strikebreakers to replace striking workers and employed Michigan-based security firm Huffmaster whose thuggish security guards tried to intimidate and then assaulted strikers.

The Nabisco strike became a cause célèbre on the Left as a consequence. The AFL-CIO rallied to support the strikers, and leftie protestors from 2020’s BLM/antifa/social justice actions came out in force. Those protestors blockaded parking lots where strikebreakers boarded buses to take them to the company’s factory, going so far as to trip car alarms at hotels where the scabs were staying. In the case of the blockade, Mondelēz hired security attacked protesters and Portland police backed them up. Nabisco sent a cease and desist letter to BCTGM and called Portland police to remove strikers from land adjacent to railroad tracks. Nabisco proposed an initial contract ($5,000 bonuses, wage increases, 401(k) matches, etc.) that the union rejected. A subsequent contract offer was rejected by the militant Portland local, but tentatively accepted by the union as a whole on September 15.

The union ratified this second contract on September 18 with over 75% of the rank-and-file voting. The four-year contract included “a 2.25 percent pay increase for 2021 and $0.60 hourly wage increases for each year after that. Additionally, workers would receive a $5,000 bonus and Nabisco would increase its 401(k) matching contributions from 25 percent to 50 percent, up to 6 percent of the worker’s total pay. No change was made to the workers’ healthcare plan.” The strike lasted 41 days and was a victory for Nabisco workers.

It wasn’t an overwhelming victory, but rather an incremental one. The remaining Nabisco workers retained their jobs and won some concessions from Mondelēz. The company promised not to implement a 2-tiered healthcare plan and offered more wages and bonuses. But old-school employee pensions were replaced by the capitalist sleight-of-hand of 401(k) retirement plans, even if those were relatively well-funded. “There should also continue to be overtime opportunities for workers who want them,” Abe Asher wrote in Portland’s “Blogtown.” “The contract does, however, allow for the formation of weekend crews—groups of workers that will work three 12-hour shifts from Friday through Sunday or Sunday through Monday and will be paid for 40 regular hours of work. Workers can bid to be part of the crew, and no one can be compelled to join it […] a ‘stepping stone’ to a broader alternative workweek, [which] was the reason why many in the Portland bakery voted against the deal.” And the threat of outsourcing jobs and production to Mexico continues to loom.

In the past, I’ve argued that “rights” are not god-given, natural, or guaranteed by law, contract, or the Constitution. “Rights” exist solely through the power of the people to seize them and enforce them. Labor unions like the BCTGM exercise their power against capitalist corporations through slowdowns, walkouts, wildcats, strikes, solidarity, and boycotts. But the best-fought, most strategic labor campaigns against capitalist abuse and exploitation rarely achieve more than incremental gains. Labor unions can exercise their power to temporarily halt the slide of wages, living standards, and the dignity of their workers, but short of a general strike or social revolution their victories are pyrrhic at best.

What stands out is the BCTGM. Fresh off its incremental victory and a new contract won against snack giant Frito Lay (through a 20-day strike on July 5-23) and engaged in an ongoing strike against Kellogg (as of October 5) BCTGM is “punching way above its weight” according to Harold Meyerson. BCTGM is vying to join the “roll call of unions that have actually changed the trajectory of American labor [which] is relatively short: the United Auto Workers, the Mine Workers, and other CIO unions in the 1930s and ’40s, as factory workers organized; AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers in the 1960s and ’70s, as unions took hold in the public sector.” Even with the current upsurge of labor organizing and worker strikes across the nation, BCTGM stands out.

This new wave of militant working-class activity is reviving the strike as an instrument of class power. But it’s too early to tell whether that is resulting in the expansion of established unions or in the organization of new ones, and thus in any increase of overall union density. I’ve been a member of labor unions at various stages in my life: the IWW intermittently, AFSCME when I was a student, and currently the NWU as a writer. I have also been critical of labor unions (as labor brokers for instance) but I never really followed the ultraleft line that workers must engage in struggles for class power “outside and against” the unions. I certainly don’t buy into the doctrinaire notion that all the working class needs is the correct political analysis and Leninist vanguard party, al la the WSWS. Now more than ever the power of workers must be supported in whatever form it takes. Sometimes critically, sometimes wholeheartedly, but it always needs to be championed.SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Helms Man Always Delivered The Goods” by Cecilia Rasmussen (LA Times, 10-17-1994)
“Parisian bread becomes toast as label’s owner closes bakery” by Carl Nolte (SF Chronicle, 8-20-2005)
“Remembering San Francisco’s Hostess Cake / Wonder Bread Factory” by Brock Keeling (SFist, 11-16-2012)
“Helms Bakery,” “2021 Nabisco Strike,” “2021 Frito-Lay Strike,” and “2021 Kellogg’s Strike” from Wikipedia
“Union Vote Ends Nabisco Strike, Despite Portland Workers’ Protest” by Abe Asher (Portland Mercury, 9-18-2021)
“Nabisco Workers End Weekslong Strike After Reaching New Contract” by Neil Vigdor (NY Times, 9-19-2021)
“‘We Are Emptying Out Their Shelves’: Nabisco Workers’ 5-Week Strike Won by Shutting Down Business as Usual” by Stephen Franklin (In These Times, 9-20-2021)
“Nabisco Workers Return To Their Jobs Following 5-Week Strike” by Dave Jamieson (Huffington Post, 9-23-2021)
“Nabisco strike beats back demand for concessions” by Don McIntosh (NW Labor Press, 9-29-2021)
“Labor strikes target Big Food as workers seize on industry turmoil” by Chris Casey (Food Dive, 10-6-2021)
“The Little Union That’s Reviving the Strike” by Harold Meyerson (The American Prospect, 10-7-2021)
“‘It Feels Like We Started a Movement’: Despite Mixed Results in Frito-Lay Strike, Workers Proud They Stood Up” by Dan DiMaggio (Labor Notes, 10-25-2021)

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