On The Language of the Tartine Union

One side talks of wanting to be proud of their workplace. The other attempts to question the motives of a unionized workforce.

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The language used in the exchange between the newly-formed Tartine Union and the business owners tells us a lot about intent and controlling the narrative.

On Thursday, February 6th, 141 employees of the San Francisco-based bakery Tartine signed a letter of intent to unionize. Four days later, the owners of Tartine declined to recognize their union, sending a letter to the press and the union—which was sent not from the owners themselves, but from a PR firm known to represent businesses like Chevron, Bayer, and Coca-Cola. Now, the issue of unionizing will be put to a vote.

I talked to two members of the Tartine Union in the latest episode of Boss Barista, and one thing that really stuck with me was the use of language by both sides. Both sides exchanged letters, and I think a closer examination of the letters reveals a lot about how language can be used to convey a message and obscure information.

Listen to the latest episode

The letter from the unionized Tartine workers is generally positive—their wants are clear, and they’re not shy about poking holes in the seemingly glamorous bakery, which has expanded rapidly in the last few years. The union letter highlights that Tartine is known for producing excellent products and that the union members want that to extend to the way they treat employees as well.

We are proud to work at Tartine and want Tartine to be the best it can possibly be. 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.

“From the very beginning, we wanted to make sure that was our message: we're not here to bring Tartine down…A lot of us came to work at Tartine as a company because of its reputation,” Emily, a barista at Tartine Manufactory in the Mission District shares on the show.

Towards the end of the letter, the Tartine Union folks lay out some of the hurdles of unionizing, and what can happen if Tartine fails to recognize the union, like bringing in consultants, offering short-term solutions like pay increases without committing to long term improvement, and threatening to shorten or cut shifts. In general, the letter comes off concise and respectful, but cautious. The union organizers clearly know what’s at stake and what tactics have been used to deter folks from unionizing.

In response, Tartine’s owners and leadership sent their own letter (you can read it in its entirety). Here’s an interesting excerpt:

We are concerned that they mentioned in the second letter that there will be conflict at Tartine if we do not agree today to their demand for immediate recognition through a card check. Using such threats of conflict is not how we communicate with each other. And, it only stands to reason that if these tactics upset our customers, it will hurt Tartine’s business and could possibly have an impact on your work opportunities as a result.

So they talk about a “threat” from the union (they mention a second letter—I couldn’t find one online but if someone else has it please send my way), but in the same paragraph make their own threat: if you upset our customers, you will hurt the business and that will impact your future job outcomes.

Think about that statement for a little bit. On the surface level, it might seem kind of aggressive but innocuous, but the implication is pretty insidious: if you complain about your working conditions, you might not have a job. Keep going further on what that means—that means the folks in charge will always be in control of your working conditions. If you say anything out of line, they’ll find a way to get you out.

That’s why a union is so critical. We need safeguards for speaking truth to unfair and unsafe working conditions. That’s kind of the whole point.

The letter the ownership of Tartine released doesn’t at all address the asks of the union, like more decision-making power and better wages. It also implies that a union might be harmful to its employees, but doesn’t say why.

Sadly, in just a few days there is already some bullying and a lot of misinformation being spread on the internet and on social media about Tartine, your working conditions and most importantly, what can happen if we have a union at Tartine.

What can happen if the workers unionize? The owners of Tartine are hoping you don’t find out.

Learn more about the Tartine Union by listening to the latest episode of Boss Barista! There’s a button below for you!

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Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

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