Monday, May 1, 2017

May Day! The bakers are gone…

By Heather Adkins

May 1 is commonly thought of as a holiday to celebrate spring. But did you know that it is also International Workers’ Day? In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions set May 1, 1886 as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard, and as the date approached, labor unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour day. A peaceful rally in Chicago at Haymarket Square began on May 4. During the proceedings, police tried to disperse the crowds when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police, killing one. The police responded by firing on the workers, killing four. The Haymarket affair was a setback for the American labor movement and yet it also strengthened the resistance of workers. May Day became a time to remember the affair and the anniversary remained a popular date for workers to strike.

April 28, 1920, Nashville Tennessean, page 4.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

Tennessee has seen its fair share of labor strikes. On one particular May Day in 1920, union workers in Nashville called for a “closed shop” policy among electrical companies, tinners, machinists and bakeries. Workers wanted their companies to only employ labor union members. In April 1920, the Electrical Club of Nashville (representing 16 companies) and the Nashville Bakers’ Association (representing 12 companies), with the support of the Nashville Kiwanis Club, issued statements adopting “open shop” policies – that is, not requiring a worker’s support of a union as a condition of employment. By implementing the “open shop” policy, employers affirmed their stances on merit-based treatment for workers.

May 1, 1920, Nashville Tennessean, page 1.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

An estimated 200 union workers left their shops on strike, including more than 60 machinists, about 50 electricians, and around 100 tinners. Despite the call for bakers to strike as well, they weren't part of the initial walkout. Still, union bakers made front page news the following three days. A May 2 headline noted that bakers failed to join the strikes. A May 3 headline assured the public that about 150 union bakers would walk out that day, but on May 4, the bakers were still working. It wasn’t until May 9 when a bakers’ walkout was reported. On the evening of May 8, Nashville’s union bakers had joined the strike.

May 9, 1920, Nashville Tennessean, page 1.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

The bakers’ strike was led by the employees of the American Bread Company. When the workers walked out, factory manager and president E. C. Faircloth requested that police picket the plant. By 1920, the American Bread Company had become well known for its “blue seal” quality bread, which was made by new baking machinery, baked by steam and delivered fresh in self-sealing paraffin wrappers. The family-run bakery established in 1889 by Charles K. Evers had grown by 1899 to hold a capacity of 8,000 loaves and could supply bread within a 300-mile radius in Tennessee and Alabama. The company pioneered recipes and even developed “victory bread” according to a government-issued formula complying with food conservation standards of World War I.

April 6, 1901, Nashville American, page 2.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

The bakers’ strike seems to have ended quickly. Beginning in April and throughout May, companies like the American Bread Company and the Federal System of Bakeries had repeatedly published want ads in local newspapers, although it wasn’t until bakers walked out on May 8 that those ads took on a tone of urgency. For instance, the Federal System of Bakeries placed several ads early in May, but it was not until May 13 that the ads said they wanted bakers “at once.” By May 14, the Federal System of Bakeries issued a statement that all of their bakeries, except for one location, were reopened.

May 13, 1920, Nashville Tennessean, page 14.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

May 14, 1920, Nashville Tennessean, page 6.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

In 1947, the “closed shop” policy was outlawed in the United States under the Taft-Hartley Act. According to the act, an employer couldn't hire only union members, but could require employees to join a union or pay the equivalent of union dues to it within a set period of time after beginning employment. Likewise, unions couldn't demand the dismissal of employees under so-called “union shop” contracts for any reason other than failure to pay union dues. The Taft-Hartley Act amended the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, ultimately restricting the activities and power of labor unions.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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