Negotiating a Contract with the Madison Sourdough Union

Negotiating a Contract with the Madison Sourdough Union

Workers at Madison Sourdough are striving to ratify their first contract—a process that's proven to be more hampered by management than they anticipated.

Hey folks! Today, I’m sharing a bonus podcast episode for your feed. You might remember that in April I profiled the workers behind the Madison Sourdough Union. They won their union vote on April 5, 2023, and are now in the process of attempting to negotiate a contract.

Recently, the unionizing workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint, alleging that management has failed to give them information necessary to bargain in good faith. Today, two workers are joining me to discuss the current state of contract negotiations.

A big focus on Boss Barista lately has been what happens after a union wins its vote—and all the ways that negotiating can be arduous. I’ll let the workers speak more to that directly. Here are Cal Pryde and Theresa Schwaar:

Ashley: I'm so thrilled to have two members of the Madison Sourdough Union with us here today. So I was hoping that you two could introduce yourselves—and I'll start with Theresa.

Theresa: Hi, I am Theresa Schwaar. I work on the bread team at Madison Sourdough, and I've been a barista for many years as well.

Ashley: How long have you worked at Madison Sourdough?

Theresa: I have only been there since April.

Ashley: Cool. So that's in contrast to Cal, who I'm also gonna have introduce themselves.

Cal: Yes, hello! I am Cal Pryde. I am a dishwasher at Madison Sourdough, and I've been working there since. I think around like the end of 2018, early 2019.

Ashley: It'll be cool to have two different contrasting opinions, someone who's newer there and then someone who's been there for many, many years. But just to catch people up to the point that we're at: So you folks unionized, won your vote in April, and now you're in the middle of this negotiation process.

So I was wondering, Cal, if you could talk a little bit about the moment that you folks are at right now.

Cal: We're at probably what's the not really thought about moment. Everybody likes to talk about the drive to unionize and the vote, and that's really cool and sexy and fun—there's a lot of momentum there—but we're in the long slog of negotiating a contract now that we have a union.

We are about six bargaining sessions in, and hopefully we don't have too many more, but that's up to the other side of the table at this point.

Ashley: Six bargaining sessions sounds like a lot. It's been about four months since your initial union vote went through and I was wondering, after that union vote went through, what was the vibe like? And I'll ask Cal first, just because you've been there for a little bit longer than Theresa.

Cal: It's been interesting. It didn't help that before the drive and during the drive, a lot of turnover was happening with a lot of older staff leaving due to either new jobs that they were planning on doing before, or burnout or that kind of thing. Everybody in the bargaining committee has been very hopeful and very excited to get a contract negotiated.

Our boss made it clear that he wanted a quick and above-board negotiation. And we were just ready to lay down some tracks and get it done.

Ashley: Theresa, what's the vibe been like for you, especially as someone who's a little bit newer in this organization?

Theresa: Like Cal said, the ownership was clear at my orientation that [they’re] interested in whatever the team was interested in, and that was unionizing. Since then, the tone has been dragging feet at the bargaining table and at the bakery.

As far as us working with the owners and management at the table, shaping bread, the tone has shifted a lot in the last week even. It's just a—quite a chilly front has come down the line, but overall, the vibe has been pretty pleasant. There's this underlying tension, but day to day we're making bread together, we're keeping it professional, but it definitely has gotten more and more tense as there's just been this continued reluctance to get anything done, any progress made at these bargaining sessions, which initially were scheduled only for two hours, which is just incredibly insufficient for making any sort of headway.

You talk about one thing and they say no, there's a revision, there's a counter, and then it's done. We were able to have an eight-hour session most recently, and that was more productive. I think taking a little bit more direct action has lit the flame a little bit recently, but it's still, it's still tense. It's still slow progress.

Ashley: One of the things I wanted to talk about: You folks recently started an Instagram account, and one of the things that you talked about was this idea that you've had these five, six bargaining sessions, and some of them have been really short, and I think someone might hear like two hours or four hours and think, “Oh, that's really long.”

But as you mentioned, Theresa, that's enough time to make one proposal and then it get countered and [you] go back and forth and you're not really sure what's really happening, and then suddenly it's over. One of your colleagues who I talked to, Lolo Young, mentioned that this could have been done in an email, some of these first sessions.

Cal, I think you mentioned you were in some of those first sessions, and I was wondering if you could talk about what the vibe was in those first couple of sessions.

Cal: Well, the first actual bargaining day, all we got done was giving them our proposal. Basically just reading it out, the proposal to them.

The filing, which I think it's now public record, the ULP (Unfair Labor Practice). That was one bargaining committee or one bargaining session done, and they were like, “No, we still want to do every other week because scheduling is hard.”

And then the next time we had a—basically a Q&A, because they didn't read the contract, I guess, or they did and they didn't understand it at all, so they just needed clarification and that's all that got done that session, pretty much. So it wasn't until maybe the third or fourth that we actually started negotiating, which is a little frustrating.

Ashley: One of the things that I've seen mentioned when I talk to other people who are unionizing or are working with management is there are different ways that people talk about things—and we can only guess why people talk about things in the way that they do. But it seems, from what you're describing, there's this general sense of like, “Shrug your shoulders, I don't know, how does this work? We don't know.” Is that the vibe that you folks were getting initially?

Theresa: I'd say a little bit of that and a lot of kind of emotional deflection, is how I best can describe it. It feels like ownership is taking things extremely personally in a way that they're leaning on and using to slow things.

It's just like, “I don't know why this is happening. I don't know. We thought we were doing a good job. We're great people.” It’s just like, even if this is a workplace—this is a workplace that we love. This is something that we want to be sustainable for our bodies, for our minds, for our finances, and it isn't as it stands.

So it's a very simple, it's just, let's get something on paper so that we can feel secure. Let's get things a little bit better so that we can be here longer. Ownership taking that and taking it personally … it’s just like, you could get hurt at doing bread and you would still be making income, you'd still have profit from this business.

None of us are in that position. There's no effort to come to our level and to see things the way we're seeing them. That ignorance piece is definitely feeling like a tactic—the surprise that our vote was successful, I mean, that was surprisingly surprising to them.

And then since then, there has been no proposals brought to us. And then a quick shift to their lawyer being the speaker at the table and the decision-maker at the table. Just all things that are kind of like, “Oh, okay, well, That's fine. She is gonna wanna drag it on longer and it seems to align with your desires as well.” Just a lot of tiring tactics.

Ashley: Let's talk about the lawyer for a little bit. I don't wanna name names, but we did talk about the law firm that Madison Sourdough hired, which is Littler Mendelson, and they're known for being the law firm that Starbucks hired for their union fight. And I've gone to their website. I've gone through different pages, and I think the words “union avoidance” are used there.

I won't use other words that might be a little bit more technical and a little harsher, but Littler Mendelson has been there from the beginning. If you go to the NLRB webpage, you can see that Madison Sourdough hired them even before you won the union vote. So it's interesting that there's this dichotomy of ownership maybe being personally offended or kind of, “We don't know what we're doing.” A little bit of that ignorance, but at the same time having one of the most powerful law firms representing you.

Cal, can you talk a little bit about when that shift happened, from management leading some of these negotiation talks to the lawyer finally stepping in?

Cal: Yeah, so the first few real negotiating contract meetings, it was very clear that they thought they had it under control, but they were very in over their head. And it was very clear that they were using the advice from their lawyer to stall. Our spokesperson at the table called them out on it multiple times. I think that scared them into bringing the lawyer to the table to be their point person.

Ashley: Can you talk about the moments where your representatives called them out? What did that look like? Or what behaviors specifically were they saying, “This is stalling”?

Cal: Just calling them out for only asking questions, them not bringing proposals. Theresa, I think you said it earlier, but even in the last contract negotiating meeting, they didn't bring a single proposal of their own.

Ashley: So basically you folks came in there with proposals and they essentially received them?

Cal: Yeah, and it's only been in like the last few that they have bought counter proposals. And that was only after the lawyer came in.

Ashley: What has this felt like for you folks? Because as we talked a little bit about, as Theresa mentioned, there's been a lot of personal kind of offense. Like, “We thought we were good employers. We thought we were this, this, and that.”

I can't say this point any more times—I guess I can, because I'm gonna say it now—union negotiations are not personal. People fighting for dignity at work is always a right, and it's not about telling someone they're bad.

It's just about people saying like, “We deserve dignity and respect at work.” But oftentimes I think people forget that these are workers: You’re people too. People forget that this is something that you are doing in your spare time. So what does this feel like for you, especially when you hear stuff like, “Why is this happening to us?” and “We're feeling sad,” or whatever feelings are getting reflected back at you?

Theresa: For me, it's very interesting. I was able to vote, just barely, to unionize, and it was very much a, “Hell yeah unions,” and this is what the team that I just met wants. So of course I'll vote yes.

In every place I've worked, and in a lot of places other people are working, it's just like, “Oh my god, we should all be unionizing.” The more that we do it, the less personal it becomes and the more we have a chance to fight against the status quo.

For the restaurant industry at large, we don't get good wages, we don't get good protections. There's just a lot that goes down in restaurants. They’re hard environments where we are hustling, we're communicating with people all day, some of us. And that's taxing.

I don't know—it's taxing on the owners to be on the floor at the bakery. They know that they're not there as much as we are. Even if this is a nice job in terms of the restaurants at large, that's the top of a slim benefit pool. There's not a lot here for us in the whole industry. So if we're doing okay at this job, that doesn't speak to the company as much as it speaks to just how poor this whole system is for this type of job.

And it's just something that needs a lot of movement and a lot of work, and I think it's exciting to be a part of something like that on a broader scale, stepping up for ourselves and asking for what we're worth.

Ashley: Cal, I've interviewed you before for an article that I wrote for Tone Madison. It published right after you folks won your union vote. One of the things that you said that I thought was really interesting, and no one has really reflected to me, is that, for you, a union would be really helpful just to have stuff written down and having clarification on like, what are the rules of this business? How do we operate, and are we all using the same set of standards to make decisions? I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit more.

Cal: Yeah. It's one of those weird things with working in a restaurant where everybody's job is so different. They have an employee handbook that I literally can't remember if I was given one when I first worked there. I think they gave me one to read when I was interviewed or something.

But there's been a lot of discrepancies of like, what you're allowed to wear, what's enforced and what's not. There's been a lot of discrepancies of who gets job evaluations for raises. Some people, they just get a yearly, like 99 cent or whatever, if they like you or something. Or you have to do an interview where they sit down with you and talk to you about if you should have a raise or not, or whatever.

And it's just very confusing. I would just very much prefer to have a very clear thing in writing that both us and the our bosses agree on. That's not just their whims, I guess.

Ashley: One of the other things that came up in that Tone piece that I wrote, and maybe we can talk a little bit about this—this is not a quote from either of you. This is a quote from one of your colleagues, but one of the things that they said, which I thought was interesting, is that having a contract is valuable, even if you just agreed to exactly what was happening currently, even if that was codified in a contract.

That's not to say that's what's happening with you folks. You might be fighting for certain things, you might not be, but the value of being able to have things written down that you expect to happen at work, I imagine, is super valuable. I was wondering, Theresa, if maybe you could speak to that.

Theresa: Yeah, I definitely agree. We have this employee handbook, and it's all these things that we're supposed to agree to out the gate. And that's just what I see this contract as—a handbook that we are writing together.

Ashley: So at this moment right now, you folks have filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and part of that complaint says that management is not bargaining in good faith by denying you information that you need. I was wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about the complaint.

Theresa: It was an information request, and it was to help us give insight into some of these unclear things such as promotions and seniority, stuff that we feel is important based on our coworkers that have poured years of just like, insanely quality work into this restaurant.

Just ensuring that they're getting what's due to them, that future us gets what's due to us. That it was the kind of information request on those kind of procedures which just wasn't really given back to us sufficiently at all.

Ashley: So we're talking about the information that you folks need to be a part of that negotiation process. As you mentioned earlier, you've been the folks bringing stuff to the table. You've been bringing the proposals, you've had some—not necessarily pushback, but kind of like, “Oh, like maybe we're not bringing as many counter proposals to you.”

But you also mentioned that this last negotiation session that you folks did was the most successful. I was wondering if you could talk about what things are feeling like now. Do you think the momentum is going in the way of getting stuff done that you need?

Theresa: Hopefully yeah. Being at the last bargaining session—I was only at one before that as an observer. But there was a lot of progress made. And a lot of progress is a subjective term, because there's a preamble and a couple of paragraphs of things that were tentatively agreed to.

So, in the grand scheme of the contract, and this is the first part of the contract too, there's still many, many, many hours ahead of us in terms of contract negotiation. It's a lot of legalese.

It still seems like the prerogative is, or the goal is, to slow it down. But it does feel like they've given an inch since the previous bargaining sessions at the table. So that's encouraging. But it's important to stand together and just be clear that we're not gonna lay down and just let them drag this along.

We're still fighting for this, and I think it's still important to be voicing our thoughts and our feelings and our concerns like we are here with you.

Ashley: Cal, do you have anything to add to that?

Cal: I would like to add that Drew has not been there for the last three sessions. He is the co-owner with his wife Emma, who has been there for all of them. But he is one of the people who has a lot of deep knowledge of the bakery, of the patisserie, of front-of-house.

He has his fingers in all of those pies. So having him at the table would really help speed things along, if there are things that people might not necessarily have knowledge in. It's hard on them to be at the table, but it's also hard on us to be at the table because a lot of us are full-time employees at Madison Sourdough and some of us will go to the table from work to negotiate.

Or some of us will be there on one of our weekend days to negotiate and it's not fun to have to do a contract negotiation on one of your two days off a week. So while it's hard on them, it's also hard on us—but it's good, too. This is something that we wanna fight for. So even though it's hard on us, we're gonna be there for the long haul, hopefully.

Ashley: And you don't get paid to negotiate, correct?

Cal: And we do not get paid to negotiate, no.

Theresa: They have cited like, “Oh, childcare is hard to get.” We have people on our committee that have children, and there's more of us there than them to get to the table. And yeah, like you said, we're not paid for it.

It's long, tedious hours, something that's not in our wheelhouse either. It's pretty disrespectful to not show up to that, to your company's bargaining session, if you do intend to keep things moving.

Cal: Yeah, like it's not like we're doing this as a, “Haha, fun, good time. We love negotiating a contract as a hobby—”

Theresa: It's also not like we're trying to extort them either. I mean, it's like, we are trying to protect ourselves and fight for our—

Cal: And we're not trying to—the boogeyman of anti-union rhetoric—run the business into the ground. We know this business is extremely profitable, and we feel like, with the work we put in and the hours and the discomfort of working a very difficult, stressful job, for how much money the business makes, we deserve much better compensation—especially with how Madison is with rent, and how Madison is with housing.

And on top of that, they have hired an extremely expensive lawyer that has been there at the previous, what is it—four negotiations. So if they can afford this lawyer, they can afford to give us benefits and that kind of thing.

Ashley: Yeah, I think we mentioned this earlier, but Littler Mendelson has also been there since the beginning, since at least April.

Cal: Since—not quite right when we let our boss know [about our intent to unionize], but if not right, then soon after.

Ashley: By the time I was starting to check records in April, or maybe even late March, I saw Littler was listed on the NLRB website. With that being said, how can people support you?

Theresa: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, supporting the business is what we want. We want to have this work. We love this work, we want to continue having it. We've done some calls to action from the public, writing notes for staff of encouragement and solidarity. And we have events coming up and we'll continue to have events.

We have a social media page. I think, Cal, what's the—

Cal: It's on Instagram. It is Madison Sourdough United Workers.

Theresa: Yeah. And Facebook as well, and Twitter I believe. And following along when we do have specific requests, which we'll be having some events and fundraisers. We've got a mutual aid fund going. Our health insurance is terrible. I can't afford it myself. And the wear on the body is real.

So having a mutual aid fund for things like that, or things that just support one another, is really important to us right now. Monetary support is helpful. Just showing up for us, encouraging us, sharing our stuff online. It is a little bit about the pressure on ownership right now because like we said, they have a very expensive lawyer at the table every time who is motivated to stretch this thing out and we're trying to get it done here.

Ashley: Do you have anything to add to that?

Cal: Definitely keep coming to buy bread and pastries and food and coffee from us because showing the management that we're even more popular because people are excited about the union drive will show them that the public is excited about this as well.

And if people know about it, showing solidarity with front-of-house, letting them know that you know about what we're going through is gonna be good. The hardest thing about this is keeping morale up and and keeping energy, but I think we'll get through this and have a good contract at the end.

Ashley: Theresa, Cal, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

Cal: Thank you.

Theresa: Absolutely.

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