The Bakers’ Agitation


There is probably no “skilled” section of tht working class in a more hopeless plight than the Operative Bakers. All the forces of bestialization seem to be focussed upon that unhappy craft. Withdrawn from all social intercourse with his fellows, and from home life, by the continuous nightwork system, beginning his week’s work early on Sunday eveniug (I have heard men sworn at for not being in soon enough to allow the boss and his family to be in time for Chapel), sweating far into the next day, he comes home exhausted, takes a fitful and feverish sleep, and repeats the process daily until Friday, when he must start several hours earlier and work several hours later in order to make bread in one night for two days. The work is not only physically exhausting, but the nervous strain is great. He sees the dough in warm weather “moving” faster than he can cope with it to keep it sweet. If the temperature suddenly falls during the night, or (as is often the case in these days of faked ingredients) the yeast deteriorates, it is “on the green side,” and he goes in fear of a “slamming” if the vans have to wait, or if the loaf has to weigh two pounds to be big enough for sale.

In the factories the hours are usually shorter, but the nervous strain is even greater. The speed is much faster and the work oftimes more laborious. The operative’s job is much less secure, at he can be discharged without notice. The wages in both cases work out at less per hour than that of the general labourer, the trade union rate, which few receive, being only 28s. per week of 60 hours for table hands. He therefore does not receive the means of subsistence for himself, a wife and family. Under such inhuman conditions it is certain that the spirit of revolt would be engendered in all those not sunk in the torpor of despair, but alas ! the operative baker’s spirit of revolt does not take definite shape. He has no money to buy books, no opportunity to confer with his.fellows ; the mental atrophy resulting from many hours of night labour in the hot, fetid atmosphere of thc bakery (I have worked in an atmosphere of over 100 degrees Fah.) make him the sport of those execrable creatures, the palate-tickling, self-seeking Labour leaders.

The baker’s spirit of revolt is manifesting itself at the present time in Manchester, and there are threats of a strike unless certain demands preferred by the operatives are conceded. Let us see what a strke in the baking industry means, and why it must entail, not only the suffering incidental to every strike, but also starvation for the women and children and bitter disappointment for the operatives.

In the first place I will briefly recall the London ’89 strike as it is called, the last great strike in our industry, and which our “leaders” claimed as the most successful strike since the amalgamation of the small unions. After a long agitation the London men finally decided to come out, a manifesto was sent to the masters and copies posted on the hoardings ; and on a given date all the men handed in a copy of the union’s terms for the signature of their respective employers. If these terms were not accepted the men gave a week’s notice. Many employers gave in, and the result was that these engaged a few extra men and supplied those masters who stood out with bread for their customers in cases where a sufficiency of blacklegs could not immediately be obtained. We thus had the edifying spectacle of union men blacklegging their striking brethren. London did not lose a single day’s bread supply. The displaced operatives received strike pay for some weeks, and paraded the streets carrying “peels” draped with crepe, headed by a brass baud which played the Dead March and other sloppy sentimental drivel outside the non-union shops until the funds were exhausted, mainly through the refusal of those in work to pay strike levies, and dropping out of the union.

Meanwhile the masters were active. They immediately substituted quick-working distillers’ yeast for the old fashioned bread-sweetening but, slow-working “thick” and “compo” yeasts; the “straight” dough system was adopted in lieu of the ferment and sponge system. More machinery was introduced, factories sprang up, or were enlarged, the unemployed grew larger, with the inevitable result of longer hours and less pay for those employed. And in less than a year conditions were even worse than before, excepting in a few instances, mostly factories.

I myself, rather than submit to the conditions my pious employer tried to enforce, threw up my job and walked about for weeks looking for work, spent the accumulations of my thrift in advertising, and was finally glad to accept a job at 22s. and bed per week of upwards of 90 hours. My bed was a fifth share of a room over the flour loft, in which we cooked and smoked. One corner of the room was the office of a city gent rejoicing in the name Pierpoint & Co., and there were other occupants of the room whom we did not individualize, but referred to by the generic name of “mahogany backs.” This was six months after our “successful” strike in that year of successful strikes, 1889.

Shortly after this there occurred an incident which revealed two facts to the alert capitalist. In North London a master baker and publican was a member of the local vestry, and in his capacity as guardian of the public health, led the opposition to a builders’ sundriesman constructing lavatories in the basements of some buildings he was erecting. The sundriesman tried various ways to bring our baker “to his senses,” without avail. He then played his trump card and threatened to ruin the baker, and this is how he proceeded. He took a shut-up shop in close proximity to the baker’s, went to a local factory owner and arranged to have an unlimited supply of bread, engaged a cashier and countermen, fitted up the shop and opened it for the sale of bread at a penny per quartern lower than the lowest cutter in that “bread-eating neighbourhood.” People came from all the surrounding districts with flour bags, baskets, etc., to fetch bread for themselves and friends, policemen were stationed at the shop door to regulate the crowd, who filed in, made their purchases, and went out through the back entrance. The bakers in the factory were working at breakneck speed, at piece wages, their wrists swollen and bandaged with excessive moulding. The baker vestryman was “brought to his senses,” and many others were driven out of theirs and compelled to call a meeting of their creditors, while the factory-owner and the builder made a profit. Less than a year ago the victor, who now lives in affluence, told me he did well over the “deal.” This incident revealed to the factory-owner the number of sacks of flour that could be turned into bread per man in a week. The speed was maintained, but wages reverted to the normal night wages. The more alert capitalist was quick to see the possibilities of machinery, and that a practically unlimited supply of bread could be turned out with its aid and that of a few skilled bakers, and by drawing on the ever increasing army of “unskilled” labourers. He saw the economic advantage he thus obtained, and that the possibility of a successful strike of London bakers was gone for ever. Indeed, the improvement and development of machinery in the baking industry has proceeded at such a pace that it is well known by live bakers that a very large proportion of the work now done in bakeries could be done by unskilled labour, which would be immediately introduced should the operatives force up their wages by any means

And in the event of a strike the general foremen with one or two blacklegs to supervise the weighing of yeast and salt, the temperating tank, the pitching of flour, etc., and with the assistance of engineers, supplied by the engineering firms, to superintend and work the dough mixers, dividing and moulding machines, regulate the heat of the ovens and draw the plate, could turn out all the bread that was required. Unskilled labovir could easily do the rest. The result would not perhaps be the highly finished commercial loaf of to-day, but bread equal in quality to that at present sold. In no trade has technical knowledge been rendered valueless so quickly as in that of bread making, and the factories are fast scooping the trade. Everything is working in their favour, and a rise in wages, shortening of the hours of labour, the abolition of night work, or any other possible reform would give the factory a further economic advantage over the handicraft bakery and the operative.

In 1889 the masters were not organised as they are now. Every district has its local association, while 90 per cent. of the bakers in urban districts are in the National Association. It will be an easy matter then to get the output of the 700 striking operatives in Manchester made in the various factories and conveyed to Manchester in a little over four hours, even from London. Sectional strikes are hopeless in all trades, but in the case of the bakers are madness. There is no hope for us under the capitalist system of production. We must trust to ourselves alone, cease to look up to leaders or appeal to politicians, organise ourselves politically and industrially, not in vain attempts to palliate or relieve our conditions, but to end them.

That trade union leaders do not understand the working-class position and are not to be trusted is evidenced by their public utterances, their miserable failure in the House of Commons, the insipid twaddle with which they decorate the title pages of rule books (“Defence, not Defiance,” “For the Good of All,” etc.), their dining and wining with, and cringing sycophancy in the presence of, the enemy’s lenders. That they do not understand the position is the most charitable construction that can be put upon their conduct. If they understand, acting as they do, they must be frauds. On the other hand the capitalist does understand the economic position, does recognise the incessant class war being waged, does fight scientifically, with all the logic of brutal warfare. He gives no quarter and allows no scruples, no appeals to his humanity to thwart him in his one object and ethic, the complete domination of the working class, the securing to himself an ever increasing share of the wealth produced by our labour. I therefore appeal to the Manchester men before engaging in a suicidal sectional strike, to reconsider their position and what a defeat must mean to them, what a long fight must mean to their wives and children. Even supposing a long fight were possible, is the objective worth the struggle ? While capitalism lasts the capitalist must come out on top. Our emancipation can only come by the complete overthrow of the system of production for profit, and the establishment of the Co-operative Commonwealth.


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