In celebration of the Colectivo Coffee Union finally being recognized (and becoming the United States’ largest coffee union), this week I’m re-airing a previous podcast episode that focuses on unionization.
In this episode, I interview members of the Tartine Union, a group of baristas, bakers, and front-of-house staff members who work for Tartine Bakery in the Bay Area, and who announced their intention to unionize in February 2020. They were officially recognized in March 2021—377 days later.
Today, those in power are continuing to fight against unionization efforts across the industry, even though so much about our working lives has shifted in the last two years. Organized labor efforts are on an upswing—but as members of the Tartine Union showed, it can take over a year to even be recognized, let alone ratify a contract and begin bargaining.
Today, with so many Starbucks employees now unionizing—and the global coffee chain responding by bringing back the hardline Howard Schultz as CEO, even while investors urge the company to respect the union votes—it’s important to stay on top of this issue, and remember that this is a long fight. Starbucks is likely counting on folks forgetting, or on this new union push losing steam, so I hope this episode serves as a reminder that we’re in this for the long haul, and our voices and support are still needed.
This episode originally aired in February 2020. One note: You’ll hear an old intro at the start, back when I was doing topic-specific episodes called “Roundups,” so the beginning might sound a little different than a typical Boss Barista episode. This episode also reflects a previous, less-experienced era in my podcasting life, so apologies for any sound-quality issues. OK, here we go.
Hey friends. My name is Ashley Rodriguez and this is the Boss Barista Roundup, a show where I tackle a topic and ask you—the listeners—to share your stories, insights, and experiences with us.
This week, we’re talking about bread—and breaking down the fight to organize between Tartine and its workers.
Here's a quick timeline of events of the Tartine Union: Tartine is a bakery. It’s based in San Francisco. And on Thursday, February 6, the employees of Tartine presented their managers with a letter of intent to unionize. It was signed by roughly 141 people, or about two-thirds of all their Bay Area-based employees. They have four locations in the Bay Area; four in Seoul, South Korea; and three in Los Angeles.
The letter reads:
We’re 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.
They go on to say: “With our union, we will work to create a workplace that is collaborative and supportive, while setting high standards for quality product, quality benefits, high morale, and good wages.” Essentially, they were asking for a seat at the table, a chance to negotiate their wages, have a say in decision-making, and know more about where their money is going.
Tartine has grown a ton in the last few years, and with so much aggressive growth, it can be hard to understand—maybe—why your wages haven’t gone up, or how shops keep opening across the globe but your hourly pay stays the same.
In response, the following Monday—so that’s February 10—Tartine declined to recognize the union.
This was expected. This happens all the time when people form unions. But in a letter the owners released, they went a little bit further than that, saying, “If they accept the card check process proposed by the union”—which is how they all signed the letter of intent to unionize—“it would mean that the union issue would be decided solely by those who have already signed union membership cards without hearing from the founders of Tartine and many other team members that feel strongly about this issue.”
They call the way the union presented their letter “a threat.” They questioned the motives of the union, and they say that there has been bullying on the internet, tarnishing the reputation of Tartine. And—just to put a cherry on top of all of this—the letter didn’t come from the owners. Instead, it came addressed from a man named Sam Singer, who runs a PR firm that represents organizations like Chevron and the San Francisco Zoo when a tiger killed one of its patrons.
We talked to two members of the Tartine Union the day after Tartine released this statement. Now the issue of unionizing goes to a vote. Everyone who works at Tartine will vote via secret ballot. And as that happens, Tartine management can do things like hire “union experts,” and the workers of Tartine can continue to rally, which has been happening and local politicians have joined their organizing efforts.
The reason I lay this all out is that there’s a lot happening, and we’re right in the middle of it. There’s a lot of push-and-pull in terms of who controls the narrative and what’s actually happening.
As you listen to the folks I interview, Emily and Mason, I want you to think about the goals of a union and what the Tartine workers actually said in their letter—and why the leaders of Tartine might not want a union, why they might use the language that they used in their response letter, and how that dictates what happens next and who controls the narrative.
Here are Emily and Mason.
Ashley: So before we get started, why don't I have the two of you introduce yourselves?
Mason: Mason Lopez, they/them are my pronouns, and I'm from the Berkeley Tartine.
Emily: And I'm Emily Haddad. She/her are my pronouns, and I am from the Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco. Mason and I are both baristas.
Ashley: Why don't you tell me where this story sort of starts for both of you?
Mason: The kiosk?
Emily: Yeah, the kiosk.
So Mason was working, actually at the Manufactory whenever they first came on at Tartine with me as a barista. We had seen the VCA—the veterinary hospital across the street—start their unionization process with the ILWU. It was just a more casual conversation of us being like, “What would this be like, what would happen?”
And then come to find out, I learned through a friend of mine who works at the Tartine Bakery at the original location on 18th and Guerrero, that they'd been talking about the same thing. They'd actually met with some folks who had worked on the Anchor Union campaign for Anchor Brewery. So we just had to merge the two restaurants and—at the time those were the only two locations, it was just Tartine Manufactory and the original bakery.
Within a couple of weeks, we had a meeting at my house, in my living room, and it kind of just started from there.
Ashley: How long ago was that?
Emily: Last April [of 2019].
Ashley: I mean, that seems like a long time ago, but for union talks, that's actually really quick. How did you start to build momentum? And when did you start noticing that, oh, this is something that we need or that people are looking for?
Mason: You know, it was probably right after that dinner at Emily's house that we realized, I think that so many of our concerns and the things that we really wanted in a work environment were really succinct.
For me, especially just watching the VCA struggle just right across the street was really inspiring. It was really helpful, especially in the kiosk at Manufactory, because the windows are these really beautiful windows and you can just see everything happening all day.
Emily: There was one day where we were working through one of their strikes and picket lines across the street and seeing local politicians turn up and all the other members of the ILWU come out to support them. We were like, “Wow, this—they've got power. And this union really supports their workers.”
So that was really cool to see. And yeah, it's like what Mason said, at that first meeting at my house, every type of worker at Tartine was present. We had front-of-house, back-of-house, Spanish-speaking people, bussers … and really seeing how all of us were feeling the same way that we loved working at Tartine and wanted to see it be a healthy, happy work environment for everyone.
It felt like we had momentum pretty quickly.
Ashley: I think that's really interesting that you mentioned some of those things at the end, that you all were working to try to make Tartine better. And that was the message, when you first released that [letter that] you were forming a union, that seemed really clear, that this was a group of people coming together to try and make the workplace better for everybody. So can you talk a little bit about what was it like crafting a message that felt true to such a big group of people?
Emily: I mean, from the very beginning, we wanted to make sure that was our message, that we're not here to bring Tartine down. That would be ridiculous. Why would we want the restaurants we work at to close?
But it was more that we enjoy working here. A lot of us came to work for Tartine as a company because of its reputation, because of how renowned it is. I personally had a friend who was the general manager at the Manufactory at the time who brought me over after a year of dealing with a very high-profile sexual harassment case against my former employer. And he assured me that Tartine Manufactory was a safe, equitable workplace.
I wanted to be a part of that and we wanted to make sure that continues and as the company is growing and there's less focus on each individual location we saw that wasn't necessarily the case anymore.
Ashley: Yeah. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some of the concerns that you did outline in your original statement to Tartine. What were some of the things that maybe folks started noticing that they were hoping that collective action could maybe start to rectify?
Mason: I feel like one of the first things that stood out for a lot of folks was transparency within the financial earnings of the company and where it's being distributed as a whole. That's something that it's just concerning to see as they continue to expand—even as we speak, Santa Monica is opening up very soon. We wanted to know how can we be that sustainable within working for this company that is promising us equity.
Emily: Yeah. You know, we were just very confused. I was personally told that the company had no money to give raises and yet multiple restaurants were opening within a few months and then one rapidly closed, as everyone knows about, they'd spent like millions of dollars on, and we want to be able to know where the money's going to that we're making and why it seems like employees, which are the face of their company, aren't their priority.
Ashley: So let's backtrack a little bit, just because I think most people have heard the word “union.” Most people kind of have an understanding of what a union is, but in the way that you folks are shaping it for Tartine, what would it mean to have a union for you folks?
Emily: At its base, a union is a seat at the bargaining table. It should help workers to take back a bit of the power in their workplace and be able to have a say in what their workplace looks like, what their workday looks like, how our labor is being sold essentially.
That to us is really important to be able to have, not just a top-down, but also a bottom-up molding of what it looks like to be a worker at Tartine.
Ashley: What was it like presenting—I don't know if either of you were there when this happened—but what was it like presenting the statement to higher-ups, to management, to the owners of Tartine?
Emily: So we both were at our respective locations, right?
Mason: Yeah. Yeah.
Emily: Kind of scary! (Laughs)
Mason: Super scary. Well, for us, for Berkeley, it's a little complicated.
Emily: Yeah. For us at the Manufactory, we weren't really sure what manager was going to be working, so we were just told to present it to the manager on duty. And yeah, we'd all met outside 10 minutes before we were going in and there's just a lot of nervous energy, but it was more like excitement.
We were excited to move forward with this and have it be public because we were working on it, you know, what feels like in secrecy for so long, and to be able to really start the dialogue between management, ownership, and workers and have it be something that we could start to talk about.
Mason: I can reflect a lot on that. It was the same for us. We were just so excited and so nervous and just really wanted to get it out in the open. It [was] almost a relief actually just to be able to be public and to start the discourse.
Ashley: So you present this letter of intent that you are starting a union, but that's not the only thing that happened. So can you walk us a little bit through the process of what happens next and what actually has happened since you presented the letter?
Emily: So yeah, what happens—and this is across the board, whenever a workplace decides to unionize in general—there's multiple steps that you take.
The first of which is actually organizing your co-workers and seeing if people want a union and as everyone's read, we have over 70% of Tartine workers, which is around 220 workers in the Northern California area, have said that they want to be a part of the union, that they want to unionize with the ILWU.
First we do that, and then we present a letter to management with the names of all of those workers. We offer them the chance to recognize our union. And as we were told by our union organizer at ILWU, the majority of owners choose not to recognize the union. So we were not surprised by that, for them—
Ashley: And that just happened, right? That just happened yesterday, just to give people kind of a sense of the timeline we're working with.
Emily: Yeah. So that just happened yesterday, where they said they’re choosing not to recognize us, which means that the decision to unionize goes to a vote. So now that goes to a vote that the NLRB, the National Labor Review Board, decides, so within like three to four weeks, that organization, this government organization, will come to our workplace and have ballots similar to how you vote when you vote for government officials, where every worker will submit a ballot that says whether or not they want to be a part of the ILWU.
It's a pretty basic process, surprisingly. Now it's a matter of making sure that all the workers are as informed as possible and feel supported by us, by fellow workers, by those who have been trying to unionize and just making sure that we stick together.
Ashley: Something that's been really powerful [is] seeing the amount of news coverage this issue has gotten and how many people have thrown their support to you folks. What does that feel like, seeing politicians and just people, like, marching with you?
Mason: Great. (Laughs)
Emily: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of us honestly got kind of teary at the rally last Thursday. We didn't have any idea that this many people would show up. I was really stoked to see my neighborhood supervisor, Dean Preston, has been throwing his full support for us.
Having that really makes us feel like, “Okay, this is valid.”
Mason: Absolutely. Even like, I went to the grocery store like two days ago and I was wearing one of my buttons and a couple of people, not just like a singular, a couple of people just shook my hand, pats of support, a couple of really great words, just doing my groceries. The people that do care about the union effort, and what that means for communities and for people, they get it, and they're here for you.
Ashley: Yeah. I really want to talk more about what it means for a group of people to come together as a union—I think we talked about that a little bit—but it really is about having a seat at the bargaining table.
So it means—I don't know how this will translate, because as you said before we started recording, you guys haven't negotiated, so there is no definite sort of things that you will get if your union is recognized. But what are some of the things that you hope for, maybe generally, to happen if your union gets recognized?
I don't know if you could talk about that.
Emily: No, I think we can. I think that one of the coolest parts about when we are going to be negotiating a contract is that we want to have someone on the bargaining committee that's from every department.
At least where I work at Tartine Manufactory, it's a huge space and a huge restaurant. And we have a whole commissary space across the street where pastries get made for multiple locations. All the workers there have very different needs, and we want to make sure that all of those workers’ needs are really heard and put into the contract.
So that's important for us. [It’s] been said a lot how expensive it is to live in the Bay Area. We want to be able to see people have maybe more of a living wage. What that would look like—we'll see whenever that negotiation happens. But as of right now, I think it's pretty sad how the majority of people who make the food and clean the restaurants and serve people have to commute an hour or two every day to do that. That just doesn't seem sustainable. So we want to work on that.
Ashley: Yeah, something that came up a lot in the articles about the union was that a lot of people seem to have to take on second and third jobs, which is not uncommon, especially in San Francisco, in Oakland, for minimum-wage workers. Can you talk a little bit about that? About what it's like working in the Bay Area and working for a prestigious company that has worldwide acclaim, and juxtaposing that to the realities of working in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and making like 13, 14 bucks an hour?
Mason: It's exhausting. It's so exhausting!
It's already exhausting to have to go to work. And then—especially if you're a barista, we know, like you’ve got to go and wake up Berkeley or San Francisco. Or whichever town you're in, and you got to deal with all of these folks before they had their coffee. So this is like, this is already work.
And to have to do that, and then run across town and go to your other job and do another six hours of the same thing or the opposite—like I also do catering work and bar backing and bar work. So it's like, I could use a break.
Emily: One thing that made me really sad, that makes me sad often at the Manufactory, is hearing from workers that we can't afford to eat there.
That just doesn't really seem right. That we're serving food that we ourselves can't afford to eat. Whenever I realize that for myself even, and started hearing that from other people, I was like, “Oh, this is something that we maybe need to look at and think about more.”
Ashley: Absolutely. Especially in San Francisco and I mean, Berkeley and Oakland and kind of the rest of the Bay Area, when I lived there, I'd commute into the city from Oakland and it would be $8 just to get to and from work.
And I was like, “Wait, hold on. How is this feasible?” And then to have to argue with people for just the dignity of like—I should be paid more so that I can eat food and not have to work 80 hours a week to make my life work is kind of ridiculous for the fact that Tartine is such a San Francisco institution.
I don't know, now I'm just like ranting a little bit. But I imagine that's hard to deal with at work, especially for a customer-facing position like the ones that you two encompass.
Emily: Yeah. It is. And you know, the reality is that specialty coffee isn't an easy job.
There's a lot of training and a lot of knowledge that goes into making good coffee and to feel like that's not noticed, or that's not appreciated in a workplace, is a bit of a bummer, and we charge the same amount, if not more, as the other big names in coffee in the Bay Area. It's sad to see that's not going to the workers at all.
Ashley: So I want to talk a little bit about what happens now that the union has not been recognized by leadership. You mentioned that this will go to a ballot. But there's still stuff happening on the ground, too. So you folks are working with the folks who are on the floor with you every day, or who already signed up for the union, but what happens on the other end? What happens with leadership? A couple of articles [about the union] have talked a little bit about it, but I wanted you folks to talk about it too.
Emily: At this point, they said yes, that they're not recognizing our union and that they're going to start hosting meetings with employees and the anti-union firm that they've hired to give us their side. And I believe that that's valid in some ways. It'll be interesting to see how that goes.
I would say that, so far, Tartine has been very smart about this. They're a very massive company. They're playing this very by the book, trying to follow all the rules. They legally can't intimidate us or tell us that we shouldn't unionize.
And for the most part, I'll say that they haven't. So we're just trying to be as respectful to them in this process as well. Because at the end of the day, it's not us against them. It's us wanting to sit with them and work on this.
Ashley: I think that's a really, really important point that you just made.
Because I think it can seem like unionizing is very connected. And while there are certainly things to work out, especially when you sit down and negotiate, it is not an us versus them. This is not what's happening. I think it's really easy for these things to be painted this way.
Especially looking at articles that have been written about Tartine not recognizing the union. I was a little flabbergasted by some of the accusations that were made, especially in the SF Chronicle article about people maybe not feeling that they wanted to be part of the union, or there are rumors about people being intimidated to be part of the union, which I thought was really interesting.
To me, that felt a little bit like a tactic to intimidate others. But again, this is maybe me extrapolating a little bit. So it's interesting when those dynamics get kind of flustered.
Emily: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's intentional on their part, wouldn’t you say?
Emily: So, like I said, we're trying to just really stay focused on our side of the street and what we're trying to do, and it's less on their actions and more about empowering employees and making sure that the workers have all the answers that they need. Informed, unbiased answers, and that they just feel supported and safe in their workplace.
Ashley: What does that felt like, taking this endeavor on? How do you feel more well-informed about yourself as a worker? Do you feel like you've learned how to advocate for yourself in a way that maybe you didn't have before?
Mason: I feel for me, I've been a barista for a little over 20 years now. And you know, I've been through some cafes and learned some things along the way. But here in this situation specifically, I feel like I've really learned some things about getting people together. Like the way that people really will just fight for each other when they realize the same message is being translated to all of them, especially because there's so many cafes that are with restaurants and with hotels.
So you're often in service with a lot of different people in the barista scene out here. It's not just a small coffee shop. We're baristas and dishwashers and bar folks and servers. And it's not just one portion of us with the same experience. It's service in general.
Emily: It’s the service struggle.
Ashley: What is the best way for people to show their support for you folks?
Emily: We've been telling everyone to come to Tartine, to show up to whatever your local neighborhood Tartine is. Get stickers and buttons, which we've been posting about on our social media, the days where they can come by and get them. Get posters, put them in at your workplace, put them out to your house.
Just be visible and show your support. Tag us at @tartineunion on all social media. Show up and give Tartine your business and show them that a unionized workplace is going to benefit them and tell workers you support them, tell all the workers you support them, so that we feel strong and we have the support of our community.
Ashley: Is there anything else that you'd want people to know listening to this, about the work that you folks are doing?
Emily: You can do it too!
Mason: Yeah, it's possible. It's very possible. Yeah.
Emily: We had no idea that there were this many resources out there for workers and that there's people who want to help us, for free—often people want to give us space to meet and resources and information.
It's not as hard as I thought it would be. We're stronger together, and the more people that you have helping out, it's a little bit easier. But you could do this too at your workplace.
Another thing that I'm trying to continue to tell people is that work is changing. Workplaces are changing with gig work, with tech work, with contract work. It's all new and different. And that doesn't mean that your workplace can't be unionized. Any workplace could be unionized. Collective action knows no boundaries. If you want to do this in your workplace, feel free to reach out to us.
We'd love to give you tips. You got this.
Ashley: Thank you folks for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.