Sunday, July 15, 2012

Losses by Gary Beck

Gary Becks' glimpse into the life of a New York baker determined to press on despite nothing going his way

It was my second day on the job and I was still nervous, unsure of what I was doing. I had been on the waiting list for a year to get into the union, Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International, the only way I'd be allowed to work in the big Bronx bakery. Now I had my opportunity and I hoped I wouldn't blow it by doing something dumb. I had experience in a small neighborhood bakeshop on Westchester Avenue, but it closed when the landlord raised the rent. The boss let me go and I had been unemployed ever since. Unemployment insurance wasn't enough to pay the bills.

Most of the workers at the factory were at least in their 40s or 50s and had been working for the company for a long time. They treated me like I wasn't too bright and I had to take it. I was too new to complain to my shop steward, who insulted me more than anyone else. My wife, Maria, was six months pregnant and I couldn't afford to lose this job. I had been assigned to the cookies division, to monitor a mixer. All I had to do was make sure the ingredients flowed in and the dough flowed out to the ovens. It was so simple that an idiot could do it, but my shift supervisor kept telling me I was doing it wrong and making nasty remarks. I wanted to hit him, but I kept my cool.

I got through the first week, despite the lack of help from my fellow workers. Maria carefully stretched my paycheck for rent, utilities and a few basics, but we had one nice meal with meat, and for dessert, reject cookies from the factory that weren't good enough for packaging. Things were definitely looking up. We were relieved that we would be able to keep our apartment, pay off some of our debts and maybe even go out to a club some Saturday night. But most of all I wanted my daughter to have a home of her own. Then suddenly everything fell apart.

The union had been negotiating with the owners, rich investors from somewhere in Massachusetts or New England, and our representatives told us they would reach a deal. It turned out the union refused to accept cuts in pay and benefits. So the membership voted and on a beautiful August day we went on strike. I was one of the few who voted against walking out and I got plenty of dirty looks, curses and insults. I had tried to tell them that it's better to make concessions and keep jobs when so many people were out of work and the economy was in trouble, but they shouted me down.

The next day I joined the picket line. Somebody shoved a sign in my hand, 'company unfair to workers', and told me to start walking around the factory. I shuffled around for hours, then took a quick lunch break, peanut butter and grape jelly on white bread sandwiches and coffee, provided by the strike fund. When I finished my shift I went to my representative and explained that I had exhausted my unemployment benefits and had no income. He promised to get me a weekly stipend from the strike fund, but it turned out not to be enough to cover our rent and other living expenses.

We were forced to give up our apartment and move in with Maria's Mama, a fine woman who welcomed us gladly. But the place was overcrowded with us and Maria's three younger sisters. I hated being dependent on Maria's family like that, but I had no choice. So I walked the picket line six days a week. And summer changed to fall, then winter, and I trudged through the snow, freezing my butt off. The only consolation was that no one had broken ranks. We all suffered together.

In the spring of a deepening recession, the union sued the company for unfair labor practices. To our surprise we won the case and the right to return to work. Everyone was walking on air. We went back to work, proud that we had beaten the greedy bosses. I started planning to search for an apartment right away. Then we got the shocking notice. The owners decided to shut the factory for good, rather than pay the workers what we had struggled for, for almost a full year. The factory was scheduled to close in 90 days. The owners issued a statement that the workers had no one to blame but themselves, for refusing to accept that the operation could no longer afford the wages and benefits it had provided in better times.

The president of Local 50, a tough talking woman, told the workers: 'We weren't asking for big raises. We just wanted to keep what we had.' I didn't feel any better knowing that now we'd get nothing. She reassured us that the union and its lawyers would study the legality of the planned shutdown. She added they'd also try to find a buyer who would continue operating the bakery. Yeah, right. Like someone else would come in and pay us what we wanted.

Maria took it real well when I told her the bad news, and said: "We'll have to save every cent we can for the next three months." What a great girl! I swore to myself to get another job and give her what she deserved. The next few months were tough for me. Some of the old union people kept telling us we really won a victory. But it didn't feel that way. I couldn't help thinking that if we only made some concessions we'd still have good jobs. I almost punched out one old guy who kept telling me: "We're not beaten. We'll fight them and win again." I wanted to tell him it was one more defeat in the Bronx, but I shut my mouth. All I could do was do my job for the next few months and hope for a better opportunity down the road.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent story that strikes close to home. I was rooting for the narrator and his good wife, hoping for his luck to turn.

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