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Workers at Tartine Bakery Are Unionizing

The San Francisco Bay Area’s Tartine Bakery is world-famous for its award-winning baked goods. But fame and awards don’t pay workers’ bills or give them a say on the job — which is why those workers say they want a union.

“What if a bakery kept its heart and soul, but always remained open to new ideas?” asks the website for Tartine, the world-renowned Bay Area bakery. Elsewhere on the site, the bakery boasts of “Production at a human scale.” Today, the humans who produce Tartine’s award-winning bread and pastries have a new idea of their own: a union.

The workers at four Bay Area locations — three in San Francisco, one in Berkeley — have chosen to become members in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). In doing so, they join their counterparts at another iconic Bay Area institution, Anchor Brewing, one year after Anchor workers went public with their union.

“We’re proud to work at Tartine and want Tartine to be the best it possibly can be,” opens a letter delivered to management Thursday morning by members of the union’s organizing committee. Of the estimated 215 workers at the four locations, 146 signed their name to the letter, a public declaration of their support for the union. The letter requests Tartine voluntarily recognize the union, but notes that should the company refuse, the union will file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Agustin Ramirez, lead ILWU organizer for Northern California, says the union will file for the election on Friday morning, twenty-four hours after the letter’s delivery, should the company decline voluntary recognition.

Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt opened Tartine’s first location in 2002, and have expanded their operations in recent years. The company has opened two new locations in the Bay Area since 2016, and stores continue opening — and closing — in Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea. Workers say this rapid growth is a key reason to unionize.

“As the company expanded, we were seeing a certain amount of neglect toward the workers — and not only the people but operations, too: money to pay invoices, for example, wasn’t there,” says Pat Thomas, thirty, a server at the Tartine Manufactory. “We weren’t getting the attention we felt like we deserved because they were opening all these new locations, and it started feeling more corporate.” Thomas hopes unionization can rescue what was once a positive company environment “before it’s too late.”

Tartine was “expanding like crazy, opening multiple restaurants in a short period of time, and then telling us that they don’t have the money to give us a $1 an hour raise,” says Emily Haddad, thirty-one, a barista at the Manufactory. “It wasn’t really matching up,” she adds.

Indeed, workers feel management is “making it up as they go” when it comes to pay, says Mason Lopez, thirty-six, a barista at the Berkeley location. Many spoke of their wages as nowhere near livable, with employees frequently having to take second and third jobs. Plus, back-of-the-house staff is largely excluded from the tip pool, say workers, an arrangement to which some object.

Tartine “can pay workers, the people who are making them the money — the cooks and the prep and the dishwashers and so on — a living wage,” says Hannah Gerard, twenty-seven, a server at the Manufactory.

I was not able to reach any back-of-the-house employees for comment. Workers admit to the difficulties of coordinating the front of the house and the back of the house in the campaign, but describe support for the union as “widespread” across all positions and locations, with a worker at one location characterizing support as strongest among dishwashers and prep cooks.

“The dishwashers and prep cooks have been insanely proactive and have gotten a lot of people on board,” says Gerard.

“These are world-class bakers,” adds Lopez, listing off awards the bread has won over the years. “These bakers should be making at least $25 an hour, something that mirrors their experience and level of skill, and then you find out they’re making minimum wage and barely in the tip pool. Why?”

Throughout history, bakers have a storied record of organizing. One of the first acts proposed by the Executive Committee of the Paris Commune in 1871 was a ban on night-work, a response to bakery workers’ long-standing demands. In the United States, too, bakers’ unions have a long history. The Journeymen Bakers Union, founded in 1880, merged into what is now the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM), which still represents some 140,000 members, mostly in the food processing industry.

In addition to higher wages, Tartine workers speak of a desire for paid time off, as well as a say in decisions relating to employee health insurance. While Tartine offers health insurance to anyone who works twenty-five or more hours per week, the company recently switched workers’ health insurance provider, causing several to lose their doctors. Additionally, several workers say they hope unionizing will bring greater transparency across the company, particularly when it comes to where Tartine’s money is going.

“If the company’s telling us that they’re broke because their projects are going out of business, we have the right to see for ourselves instead of taking their word for it,” says Thomas. “We’re just asking for a say.”

“Money has been funneling into San Francisco by the bucketload over the last five years, but there’s not a lot of follow-through when it comes to restaurant workers, or anyone in cafes, and those are the people that keep these cities running,” says Lopez. “Money changes hands, but we’re only getting the minimum that an employer is supposed to pay a person to avoid getting into legal trouble. Put that way, it’s hurtful.”

By announcing their union campaign, Tartine workers follow the lead of those at Anchor Brewing, a craft brewery that unionized last year, also with ILWU.

“When Anchor Steam went public with their unionization, that’s what motivated me to say, ‘Let’s actually do this instead of just talking about it,’” says Thomas. Following the launch of Anchor’s campaign, he met with people who had helped Anchor Steam workers organize. From there, he says, the process began in earnest.

“We had read that Anchor Steam became public with their union, and we thought that was awesome,” says Matthew Torres, twenty-three, a barista at Tartine’s Berkeley location. “We’d talked about it playfully, like ‘Oh, that’d be so cool.’”

Soon enough, a small group began meeting with Anchor Steam workers, an ILWU representative, and — as was true in the Anchor Steam campaign — collaborating with the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who provided meeting space along with organizing support.

“The process of organizing can be very daunting, very scary, and kind of emotional at times,” says Torres, adding that having DSA present to facilitate space for Tartine workers to connect with other workers was “really, really helpful.” SF DSA plans to hold a rally with Tartine workers at 6 PM at 24th Street Plaza Thursday. As with the Anchor campaign, workers hope to immediately build community support for their union.

Several workers stressed interest in working with the ILWU because of its radical history, and in particular, what Lopez describes as its “antiracist advocacy,” referring to ILWU’s willingness to shut down the Port of Oakland in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as its history of political boycotts on cargo.

Tartine workers will join the same ILWU local as Anchor Steam workers, Local 6, expanding the less-traditional shops represented in the local. San Francisco veterinary hospital workers have also organized as Local 6 members, a process that Anchor workers — and DSA San Francisco — have supported.

Local 6 has “pharmaceutical workers, workers at landfills, workers at recycling facilities, workers at chocolate manufactories, radiologist technicians at hospitals, warehouses, and now, workers in the beer industry,” says Ramirez, the ILWU organizer, adding, “We believe that the workers have the right to choose their union. The ILWU will be with them until we reach the other side.”

As to how they expect management to respond to the union drive, workers are uncertain (I reached out to Tartine’s chief operating Officer, Chris Jordan, for comment, and have yet to receive a response). “Tartine likes to be known as an inclusive and welcoming place,” says Gerard. “Hopefully, they will take that reputation and do the right thing: let us bargain a contract.”

Should unionization lead to an NLRB election, it’s possible the company will push for each Tartine location to hold a separate election, a possibility for which ILWU’s Ramirez says the union is prepared.

Tartine workers emphasize that just because the vast majority of food service work in the United States isn’t currently unionized, that doesn’t mean the industry can’t change its ways.

“I hope people can take inspiration from us, like we did from Anchor Steam,” says Torres. Food service workers “move through jobs every few months or year because these workplaces are bad or unaccountable, and I really want to see other people be inspired by what we’re doing and do it themselves, and aid them in doing that.”

“A lot of people think restaurant work is not a skill, or not a career,” agrees Lopez, “but you can have a service job be your career. There are plenty of really talented, amazing people working in the service industry; the problem is they aren’t taken care of.” Lopez spoke of how “exhausting” it is “to go from restaurant to restaurant, from bar to bar, and it’s always the same song.”

“Why not make a difference?” asks Lopez. “Why not set an example for other restaurant workers, and maybe inspire them to do the same?”