This is an excerpt of Through the Eyes of a Union Member: The Slow Demise of an American Baking Company, which appeared on the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) blog.
The following story was sent to us by a retired BCTGM Local 24 member. It is a true account of a dedicated bakery worker who grew up in and with Interstate Bakeries Corp. (IBC), in its various forms. Like his father before him, he spent his career working hard and supporting his family with good wages and the protection of a union contract. And like his father, he watched as the company was mismanaged and began the spiral of demise.
Thank you, Brother Scott, for sharing your story.
“Maybe someone out there should hear the real true story about Interstate Bakeries Corporation/ Interstate Brands/ IBC/ Hostess Brands/ Wonder Bread/…whatever you want to call it. There has been so many confusing statements about this corporation and its union employees in the past eight years, and very few of them really look at the depth of the real truth of where this corporation and its mismanagement started.
“I was one year old when my Father moved from Chico to Sacramento, Calif., to take a job as a transport driver for “Blue Seal Bread” after four years of working for “Sunbeam Bread” in Northern California. The year was 1955, and the “Blue Seal” company was owned by Interstate Bakeries Corporation out of Kansas City.
IBC Closes Blue Seal
“All through my younger years I heard my Father tell me just how mismanaged and screwed up this company was. He used to tell me time after time that the company wasted more money than they were worth. The bakery went through more than a dozen plant managers in the 12 years he worked there. In June 1967 the bakery closed, which at that point in time was one of many that Interstate had closed across the country.
“These union workers put their entire lives’ into this company. One man who had been a victim of Interstate bakery closures all over the country for years was so distraught he went home, dowsed himself down with gasoline and set himself afire.
“After the “Blue Seal” closure, my Father was recommended by his union to move to Oakland, where at that time, Interstate owned Weber’s Bakeries. In early 1969, the Weber’s plant in Oakland closed, due to the same problems the “Blue Seal” plant had. By this time my Father had enough, he drove down the freeway and into a bakery he watched being built in late ’67—Colombo French Bread. He talked with the president of the company and had a job driving the next day. Weeks later he told me, “I am working for the best people in the world here,” He absolutely loved it. This small French Bread bakery was owned by a group of Italians who had been making “Sour Dough French Bread” years prior to World War II.
Summer Work Launches Career
“In 1972, my Father asked me if I wanted to take a summer job at the bakery. The company at the time was growing by leaps and bounds and had merged with Toscana to get their flour cheaper. Not being Italian, it wasn’t all that easy to get in, but they needed a machine operator and I was mechanically inclined. In two weeks, I was trained on every slicing and wrapping machine they had. In the next six weeks, I was trained to take the foreman’s positions of all three shifts when they were either sick or on vacation. Here I was only 17 years old and not yet out of high school.
“The work was enormous, and extremely strenuous, especially during holidays. You hit the floor running, and it was not uncommon to put in a 12- to 14-hour day. But the people had something there that later on, when I got older, I would finally recognize. It was what had made that company so successful. It was pride. Pride in themselves, and pride in their work. Failure in this place was not an option. If we failed at anything, we couldn’t show our face at work the next day. When you worked for Colombo, you worked as a family. The old Italian owners worked side by side with you, and you had as much care and pride for that product, in how it looked, tasted and how it was presented, as everyone else there.
“In the next six years production seemed to double, and by 1978 we added on a huge addition, with a new packaging department, new loading dock with nine dock doors, a thrift store and an 8,000-square-foot freezer. By this time we had three ovens cranking out more than130,000 units per day—not bad for those days, with well over 100 varieties. My line had 16 hours of sliced bread, with seven different varieties.