Workers at 'America's Most Influential Bakery' Are Accusing Its Owners of Union-Busting

San Francisco's Tartine is incredibly popular—and still expanding—but many workers believe they're not getting a fair slice of the pie.
March 6, 2020, 8:19pm
tartine-bun-1
Photo: Getty Images

It’s been called “America’s most influential bakery.” Its owners won the “outstanding pastry chef” James Beard Award more than a decade ago. San Francisco-based Tartine is “world-famous” and growing rapidly, with multiple locations in Seoul, Korea and an ever-expanding footprint across California. And in less than a week, workers at four Bay Area locations will likely vote to unionize—but management is fighting to stay union-free.

About two-thirds of Tartine’s San Francisco and Berkeley staff signed a letter last month announcing their intent to unionize.

“We are proud to work at Tartine, and want Tartine to be the best it possibly can be,” the statement, which asks owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson to voluntarily recognize their union, reads. “Tartine is renowned for the quality of its products and service. We want it to also be renowned for being one of the best places to work in the Bay Area.”

Employees filed for a formal vote with the National Labor Relations Board and told VICE that the vote will be held at three San Francisco stores on March 12, followed by Tartine’s Berkeley location the next day. They’ll need just over half the employees to approve the union on each day in order to win.

If the Tartine Union is successful, their victory would be historic. While some food-service workers are organized with unions like the United Food & Commercial Workers, the overwhelming majority of food and beverage workers in restaurants and bakeries don’t have union representation. And that’s especially true within the artisanal and farm-to-table movement, in which Tartine is a major player. But as Prueitt and Robertson expand the brand’s footprint, workers at home say they’ve been left behind.

Tika Hall, a server at Tartine’s original location near San Francisco’s Dolores Park, said that many of her coworkers make close to minimum wage and are barely scraping by. The city’s minimum wage is well above the national rate, but the Bay Area is also one of the most expensive places to live in the world. Hall is lucky—she’s one of the few people with rent control—but after two years at Tartine, she’s still barely able to save.

“I’m 36 years old and I don’t see a future where I live alone,” she said, adding that some coworkers—especially those with children—are living even more precariously. She doesn’t just want a raise for herself; she wants to see everyone benefit.

Matthew Torres feels similarly. He started two years ago as a barista at Tartine Manufactory, the company’s massive outpost that includes a full restaurant, but now works at the Berkeley location. In the beginning, he bought into the company’s ethos, and he was also drawn in by comparatively higher pay and the lure of health insurance.

“When I started, there was more of a culture that things were possible,” he said. It seemed like you could grow with the company. But after being kept at minimum wage for a couple of years, Torres grew disheartened when Tartine reduced its health insurance benefits for part-time employees. Tartine was expanding, but Torres and Hall said that it was simultaneously morphing into a more corporate, disconnected workplace. As workers grew more frustrated, they started to wonder if things could be different.

“Service jobs have been viewed as such a disposable career,” Hall said. “Especially in San Francisco, there’s such a division—it’s the super-rich people and the people who serve them.”

Sick of an industry with high turnover and a lack of security, many Tartine employees looked to one union in particular as an alternative. Workers at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing voted to unionize almost exactly a year ago; those workers, just like the employees organizing at a veterinary hospital across the street from Tartine Manufactory, were aligned with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a radical union with deep local ties. When Tartine employees at multiple Bay Area locations started discussing unionization almost a year ago, the ILWU seemed like a natural home.

In a public statement sent to VICE, Tartine management tried to paint the company as the victim of an outside agitator, claiming that Tartine “was targeted by a professional union organizer” who organized Anchor Steam and who has only been with Tartine for three months. Torres argued that characterization is backwards.

“This was a bottom-up organizing campaign,” Torres said. “This has been working-class people fighting back. It was solely us.”

Hall agreed. “We would like the credit for starting the union,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard on this ourselves.”

Tartine’s owners have made their opposition to a union explicit. “We want to keep Tartine a union-free workplace,” Prueitt said in a statement. “Tartine does not endorse ILWU, we do not believe it holds the best interest of our employees at heart.”

The statement claims that Tartine offers “competitive wages and benefits,” but argues that the company is “operating on incredibly slim margins” and are also trapped by high rents. “While we have grown to have almost 230 employees in San Francisco, we are still struggling to turn a profit,” the statement says.

In response to questions from VICE , a spokesperson for Tartine acknowledged that the company changed healthcare providers in April 2019 after reevaluating its offerings but didn’t explain whether the changes amounted to a reduction in benefits.

In addition to declaring their opposition, Tartine’s owners also hired a “union-busting” firm known for fighting anti-union campaigns on behalf of Whole Foods and Donald Trump, according to Tartine workers. (Tartine didn’t respond to VICE’s request to confirm this or to elaborate.) Torres and Hall said employees have been required to attend what are called “captive audience meetings,” or required meetings where the company or its consultants lay out their case against unionization. Hall has attended three such meetings, she said.

John Logan, the director of the labor and employment studies program at San Francisco State University, said Tartine’s response is pretty typical.

“The overwhelming number of employers tend to react this way,” he said. “Opposition—and fairly aggressive opposition—tends to be the norm.”

Logan estimated that 70 to 80 percent of employers facing a union drive hire outside experts versed in “union avoidance” who come in and hold captive audience meetings, among other tactics.

There are some laws that protect workers’ rights to unionize, but labor protections are relatively weak and the law tends to favor employers, he said. Even in a liberal bastion like the Bay Area, plenty of employers, such as East Bay grocery store Berkeley Bowl, bitterly fight against unionization efforts, he said.

Torres said the mandatory meetings are draining some workers, adding that he’s been disappointed by the company’s response especially because he’d thought the owners were “very nice, very good people.”

“I think their strategy is to try and exhaust us,” Torres said. “I think it’s putting a lot of stress onto people, and they cause a lot of confusion.”

But Hall believes management’s efforts are backfiring. People are wondering how the company can argue it can’t afford to pay employees better when they seem to be spending so much fighting the union, she said, and more coworkers have expressed interest in voting “yes” since the pushback began. Plus, she’s been inspired by the community support from regulars and colleagues in the industry who are reaching out to ask how they can follow Tartine’s lead.

“I would be happy to set a new standard for what a great service industry job was,” she said. “We’re the ones making the bread. We’re the ones making and serving everything. We should get some recognition for that.”

Advertisement