In the 1950s, organized crime in New York City wanted in on burgeoning bagel profits. As Jason Turbow recounts in this fun piece at Grubstreet, the New York City Bagel Makers’ Union Local 338 — a membership made almost solely of Jewish bagel makers and their sons — wasn’t prepared to share the gelt.
Despite a decidedly limited reach through the first half of last century, demand kept dozens of bakeries in business throughout Manhattan and the eastern boroughs. They were miserable places to work, located in the basements of apartment houses and other large buildings with coal-fired furnaces that could be converted into ovens. Ambient temperatures in those rooms reached 120 degrees, with bakers frequently stripping down to their underwear, even in the dead of winter, while furiously sidestepping infestations of roaches and rats. “There appears to be no other industry, not even the making of clothes in sweatshops, which is carried on amid so much dirt and filth,” reported the state of New York in one of several scathing industry safety reviews. It was not uncommon for poor tradesmen to ply temporary homes in the corners of these rooms, sleeping on empty flour sacks in the handful of hours between shifts. So dire were conditions that they even inspired a Yiddish curse: Lig in der erd un bak beygl. “Lay in the ground and bake bagels.” (Alternatively translated: “Go to hell and bake bagels.”)
The excessive hours mandated in such environments were so brutal that in the late 1920s, bagel bakers, primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe, banded together in protest. The result — Union Local 338, under the umbrella of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers (B&C) International — offered a measure of professional leverage. Beginning in the 1930s, if one wanted to run a bagel shop in Manhattan, one had no choice but to employ union bakers. They were, after all, virtually the only men in town capable of making a proper bagel, not to mention exceedingly judicious when it came to imparting their wisdom. So comprehensive was this mandate that bakery owners were prohibited from manning their own ovens at the risk of costly and relentless picket lines outside their shops. (Picketing was the official response to virtually all major labor disputes. The union prevailed every time.)
Union Local 338 never grew much past 300 bakers, but the power it held was enduring. Membership was intentionally exclusive, based on the lineage-driven, old-world tradition of passing down a generationally honed craft from father to son. On this basis, acceptance was limited to the sons of existing 338 members (with the rare son-in-law and occasional nephew sliding quietly under the rope), a structure that retained an exclusively Jewish identity. Until American-born offspring began to turn over No. 338’s roster in the 1950s, the local communicated primarily in Yiddish, its correspondence and record-keeping entirely indecipherable to outsiders. The newspaper of record, the one read by bakers during their breaks, was the Yiddish-language daily Forverts — the Forward — which today publishes online in both English and Yiddish.