Sunday, February 9, 2020

A Very New York Story: "How New York’s Bagel Union Fought — and Beat — a Mafia Takeover"

From Grub Street:

The mob saw an opportunity. Local 338 had other ideas.
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In 1944, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, some enterprising thief stole a truckload of more than 1,500 bagels slated for delivery from Fisher’s Bakery on Norfolk Street. It was a newsworthy event, and local papers covered it duly — especially the primary mystery confronting policemen on the scene. At question, reported the Associated Press: “They wanted to know what a bagel was.”
Even into the modern era, the presence of bagels in America was largely confined to Jewish enclaves, predominantly in New York City, the old-world bread still sufficiently exotic that every mention of it in the New York Times (usually brief items concerning labor issues) assumed no previous knowledge on the part of readers. “A bagel,” the newspaper of record explained in 1960, “is an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.”

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.

Under the union, bakers’ hours were soon strictly controlled, with wages rising to match those of high-end plumbers and electricians, plus paid vacations, life insurance, and pension plans. With a direct line between union members and their fathers who worked the benches before them, it was impossible to take such gains for granted. It also made concessions nearly impossible when it came to negotiating contracts.

Ultimately, it barely mattered to shop owners. In a thriving industry that by the mid-1960s was pumping out more than 2 million bagels per week to a market only just beginning to reach beyond New York City, they could afford it. With their industry grossing some $20 million per year, these men purchased homes on Long Island, drove fancy cars, and sent their children to prestigious colleges. It was a copacetic ecosystem, working out favorably for all involved.

Naturally, the Mafia wanted in.

By the time Johnny Dio — given name: Giovanni Ignazio Dioguardi — got involved with Manhattan’s bagel industry, he was 50 years old and, in the words of United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a “master labor racketeer.”

A capo in the Lucchese crime family, Dioguardi had already made a fortune skimming off the top (and frequently the middle) of fraudulent New York labor unions he’d formed for that very purpose. (Dio’s paper unions — bearing full voting rights despite no membership to speak of — were instrumental in electing his pal Jimmy Hoffa to the national presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1957.) In 1963, Dioguardi — having just served three years of a four-year mob-related prison sentence for tax evasion — proclaimed himself a changed man. He portrayed the work he’d lined up upon his release, for a company called Consumer Kosher Provisions, Inc., as legitimate. He was a hardworking frankfurter salesman, he said, who left his home in Point Lookout at 4 o’clock each morning and drove some three hours to Sullivan County to make sales calls....