The Tartine bakery in San Francisco is famous for its Instagrammable morning buns and lines around the block. Pop music drums play as customers sip matcha lattes.
The bakery, nestled on the corner of Guerrero Street and 18th Avenue in the Mission District of San Francisco, is a place of migration.
The pictures you’d take behind the scenes might not be immaculate and post-able, but they’d be authentic. The line doesn’t begin there, just the days of diligent Guatemalan, Honduran and Mexican workers. The music you’re likely to hear is banda, the drinks not sipped but chugged.
Diana Echeverria’s life has been spent in and around Tartine Bakery, opened in 2002 by Point Reyes residents Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Pruiett. As a ten-year-old, all she really knew was it was a special place. A family place.
“Most of my family, two of my brother and two sisters, sister-in-law, my uncle, were all working there,” Echeverria remembers. “I know Chad from a long time ago. My family was in good communication with him for a long time.”
Now, at 26-years-old and 16 years later, she has gone through the full treatment. She has worked as a back of house employee, doing the dishes and closing up at night. She then worked front of house as she got older, whipping out drinks and handing out paper bags of country bread. In February of 2020, she had been promoted to Service Manager.
“I was in transition to be a manager at the time of the unionizing,” Echeverria says. “It was a surprise to me. I didn’t have union experience.”
Enough of these service workers decided that for the high prices of the morning buns they ought to be paid better. In addition to higher wages, employees of the bakery asked for reliable schedules, job security, and a seat at the table.
In February of 2020 a group of Tartine employees formally began the unionizing process. The battle got a lot of public attention, with the union promoters and the company posting frequently on their respective social media channels. Much has been written by and for the English, public-facing audiences of Tartine (try unionization, union-busting, or most ridiculously, anti-union merch).
The scenario is less straightforward for Echeverria as she lives in many identities. Two of her sisters are living in Guadalajara, Mexico. The decisions impact her family in the Bay Area, too. Nonetheless, she feels called to help educate her co-workers. She says the prep and dishwashing teams do not speak English. She says many were not born in the United States.
“[I was] a little bit scared, or worried,” Echeverria says. “They said we’d have a lot of meetings and information. I wanted to know about both sides.”
One of the major advocates for the union drive was Pat Thomas. Thomas plays at the Knockout with his band, the Cool Ghouls. He can crank out coffee, and good service, at a breakneck pace. His San Francisco Giants jacket and cigarette-smoking are mainstays on the street between Tartine Bakery and Delfina Pizza, across the street from Fayes Coffee.
But at 31-years-old, the former coffee lead of three years is now unemployed. Due to COVID-19, he was one of 200 employees let go. His participation in the union drive was a hugely important part of his life.
“My initial drive was to have a working class say in the economy, and I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I start where I am?’ But now, without participating in the economy, I just don’t know where to direct my energies.”
Thomas, and colleagues at Tartine including Emily Hadad, had been meeting with recently unionized Anchor Brewing. They also reached out to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Labor Committee, who had been helpful in pointing Anchor along.
In the winter of 2019 Anchor went with The International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU). Tartine unionizers came knocking in the winter of 2020. Thomas said they liked that union for their politics and that they had “a history of being a leftist union.”
“Their motivation is to organize the working class. Very bottom up structure.”
Agustin Ramirez, Head of the Northern California ILWU, was a needed boon for the unionizers. Ramirez is originally from Mexico. At 61 years old, he’s been organizing for 35 years and fights doggedly for workers everywhere.
Unions are a slippery subject from the global perspective. In the United States, employees are covered at an all time low. The global average, according to The Economic Policy Institute, is one out of nine. For Black people, it’s at 13 percent. When it comes to the undocumented or informal employees of any given country, the number is indeterminably low.
In other countries, unions can be seen as shady or easily corruptible. This is certainly a narrative held in the United States, but as a transnational employee the stakes feel even higher.
Diana says that one worker from the back of house was a part of a union in their home country. The experience was bad because the employee had been fired, and the union didn’t defend him or advocate for recompense.
“He shared that experience that he had, other guys listened to him, and they got in the position of ‘that’ll happen with us.’ But I think it was just one who had one bad experience.”
Ramirez tried to demonstrate that in the United States these issues wouldn’t happen. The leaders are there to protect, that the union process is legal, and that they had the right to join a union. And to vote.
Unionization is common in Guatemala and Honduras, but even in my home country of Mexico they have a different vision of what a union is. In our home countries, they are a little more corrupt.
In early 2020, 141 employees across the three Bay Area Tartines signed an open letter to unionize.
The consultants at Lupe Cruz and Associates came in the spring. It is standard for the business whose employees are unionizing to bring in a third party group to consult with the staff before a vote. This group is notable for their work in disbanding drives at Trump Hotels and Whole Foods Markets. Their role is to come in and assess the tenor of the workers – will they support the union or not?
Cruz and Associates seemed to play on the aforementioned concepts of union corruption. Echeverria, Thomas, and Ramirez all agree. They tried to group together the most enthusiastic supporters, and they grouped folks by language, “which made sense in some ways, but siloed us into two groups” Thomas adds.
“It worked, in a lot of ways. ‘All the union wants are the dues’, ‘bringing in an outside party’ rather than ‘we’re a group’ narrative. They played up immigration concerns. ‘Do you really want your name on this list?’”
Ramirez clarifies: February 6th or 7th was when the union went public, and by the 13th of February the company had hired “anti-union” consultants. Cruz and Associates brought five people to San Francisco to speak “mainly with monolingual Spanish workers.”
“Heaven knows what they told them,” Ramirez sighs.
Eric Mueller, the lawyer representing Tartine on behalf of the firm Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt, LLP, was invited to contribute to the story via email and by phone. The firm offered no reply. The general manager of the Tartine Bakery, Zach Taylor, worked to coordinate unionizing efforts and never impeded the process.
By Thomas and Ramirez’ count, the majority of employees across the locations wanted the election. “Signing cards,” demonstrating a formal written interest, is how the unionizing process formally begins.
“We don’t file for an election until 80 percent of the employees want to sign cards.” And when the election rolled around, it was a 89-84 in favor. There were a number of challenge votes, however, that complicated the win.
“The consultants swayed 30 percent of the support. They tried to play up a lot of division with the Spanish speakers,” Thomas says. Of the eight Spanish monolingual employees in the back of house, Thomas adds, most signed cards. But the communication was never deep between the English-speaking front of house and back of house.
Echeverria said she wanted to try and get as much information as possible to be prepared for the decision. It’s less simple for the “non-Natives,” she adds, who mostly work in the back of house.
“All the things they are doing are pretty hard. I think a lot of them are over-thinking on a hard decision. Someone says it’ll be good, it’ll be bad, then they overthink it. They have to think about their economic or political situation. It’s also about friendship for them. They are just trying to look for something better.”
By the time votes were cast, Thomas believes there was only one Spanish speaker at the Bakery location who wanted the union.
Across the Bay Area, the Bakery in the Mission District was only one of three shops to vote. In Berkeley, the vote was unanimous to unionize. At the newly opened Inner Sunset location, however, an ardent enemy of the union rose. In the last week before the election, there was an all staff Spanish-only meeting. Thomas relays the event:
“[A worker at the 9th Avenue location] got up in front of everyone and said ‘Look, ya know we all moved here for a better life. We have a strong work ethic. Everyone who is supporting the union are the White kids in the front. They’re all lazy. That’s not what we do. We work hard. We’re grateful for what we have.’ Sounds like it was pretty persuasive for people. That’s what is so heartbreaking about it. We didn’t have the tools to keep up communication with that group of co-workers.”
Diana tried to help back of house folks get more information like what she learned. She thought they would come to see that this new information would help change their minds. Despite this, Echeverria says many folks from her community didn’t go to any informational meetings. They were busy working another job, or taking care of their family. Some had other concerns, perhaps those stoked by the consultant group.
“When I ask them, they said they were afraid. But they were also open to learn something about [the union].”
Echeverria says she saw the consultants make her co-workers feel afraid through language-based tactics. While Diana didn’t hear conversations about deportation specifically, she says she spoke in Spanish with many of them and felt placed in the middle between front and back of house, caught in a cultural divide.
“They made them feel weak for not speaking the same language,” Echeverria says. As talented, hard workers, she says that many felt they could just work somewhere else if they thought the treatment was that bad.
The Tartine union drive has now reached a contentious moment. All parties come on sight and the company sets up at a table with a tiny voting booth. Next to the NLRB representative sits a representative for the union, and one for the company. The company chooses an employee for a representative. Thomas was the union observer.
The election happened less than a week before one of the world’s most effective shelter-in-place orders was enacted in the city of San Francisco.
Thomas and Ramirez kept tallies on who was for and who was against. By their estimate, on election day there were 89 votes ‘yes’ and 84 votes ‘no.’ But there were 24 challenge ballots. That means either the company or the union challenged the eligibility of a worker on the voting list. This could be because the person didn’t have enough hours to be eligible, or that the union argued the employee was a manager and couldn’t vote.
Less than a month after the vote, the 200 staff were laid off due to the Coronavirus.
If the contested votes had been smaller than margin of difference, less than 24, it wouldn’t have mattered. In this case, it meant the National Labor Relations Bureau would have to litigate. Other issues came into play that both sides are contesting: days before the vote, Tartine hired 12 new people at the Inner Sunset location. The union took issue with that, for example.
Ramirez says the dynamic after the pandemic showed the workers that the consultants had been lying.
“After so many were laid off, the workers [supporting the union] made a committee and GoFundMe to help the workers who did not have access to unemployment. We raised over $35k and we distributed on a bi-weekly to over 35 people. Up to $250. We raised money by selling posters from a community artist.”
This cooperation brought some minds around, Ramirez says.
Since then, the litigation was announced on August 20. Of the 24 contested votes, 19 were agreed to be thrown out due to lack of eligibility. The NLRB held a six day hearing, and the result was that out of the remaining five, two should be counted and three should not be counted.
The union says one of the three votes that the company says should not be counted was an incorrectly marked ballot, so they’re appealing to the regional director of Region 20 of the NLRB. This is because one worker at the Mission District location who doesn’t meet the February 16, 2020 dateline (to be eligible for time worked to therefore cast a vote), but one worker that the union is contesting began on February 12th with a three hour shift, paid in cash. This worker worked one more shift on February 18th, then began his paperwork a week or so later in February.
This employee was already an employee in Berkeley, though.
“There’s case law that supports that,” Ramirez says. “Some undocumented workers are paid under the table but they’re still employees of the company.”
If the appeal goes through, Thomas and Ramirez believe they have enough votes to win the drive. But even if the union drive is successful, it will be hard. The city of San Francisco has the right to return to work ordinance, but workers can’t come back if the companies don’t open or re-create their jobs.
“If this doesn’t go through, then the people still working there have to decide that they want to hold another election in March 2021,” Thomas adds. “But that would be up to the people still there.”
Speaking of the people still there, Thomas points out that they won the vote 18 to zero.
“But the Berkeley location was closed outright after COVID landed,” Thomas adds. “We all assume that was because it was a union shop.”
In the last few months, Chris Jordan, now former CEO of the company, and Chad Robertson sold all their shares in the Coffee Manufactory to CIM Group, a private equity company with real estate interests. The acting CEO is a CIM Group employee.
Echeverria thinks there were all kinds of reasons folks didn’t sign up.
“A lot of the guys say ‘no,’ but it’s because they are the dishwasher. They don’t feel they have an important part of the business.”
She thinks there were a lot of things that felt unclear. For her, it’s a lifetime of loving something that turns away from you.
When I saw the changes and the people taking care of money rather than their employees, that makes me angry. What has happened to this place, ya know?” Echeverria says of the bakery.
On March 30, 2021, the union won the drive. The win didn’t come without upsets.
The national NLRB tossed out the company’s appeal back in February. Tartine had appealed the local NLRB’s decision regarding the challenge ballots, which went to a court in Washington D.C. There were ultimately 24 challenged ballots, some challenged by Tartine and some challenged by the union.
For example, the union argued that a person was a manager, whereas the company would argue that a person hadn’t worked enough time to vote, Thomas says.
Over Zoom, lawyers from both sides brought witnesses (mostly Tartine employees) who would vouch for the legitimacy of the workers’ votes in questions. It was like a digital trial that took place throughout the summer. At the end of that trial, the local NLRB decided to open 10 of the challenged 24 ballots. Fourteen were tossed out and 10 were added to the tallies. The DC court ratified this decision, denying the company their challenge.
“The reason the company appealed was because they were keeping tallies on who was likely to be a yes and who was likely to be a no,” Thomas says. “The union thought it was looking good. So that’s why they appealed. One of the reasons, I would imagine.”
Thomas says he’s had some time to come to terms with the fact that he won’t receive representation himself. He says it will take the remaining employee’s initiative to make the organization work from here.
“I’m sad I won’t get to see this through the next step,” Thomas says. “But I at least feel a little sweet to know that we did win.”
Thomas says on March 31 there was a rally at Dolores Park for Dandelion Chocolate’s recent announcement that they too are forming a union with the ILW. Looks like there must be something in the air.
“The funny thing is that a lot of the people central to starting the whole thing are not working at Tartine anymore,” Thomas says. “What it means that whoever is working there will have a union. They’re going to be represented.”
As COVID-19 takes the world into a further storm each day, the Tartine union drive can feel like a sourdough blip on the radar. Abroad, Tartine has pop up carts in Tokyo and a “brand licensing deal” for Tartine products in Seoul. The bakery employees, the ones keeping the back churning and the floors shining, are from all over the continent.
For the migrant communities counting on the bakery for their livelihood, and folks who have loved and lost at Tartine like Echeverria, the work goes on. This decision from the NLRB might just make their work a little more like what customers see on their Instagrams, though.
Post-script: The author of the article has worked off and on as a front of house server at Tartine since the fall of 2018. The author did not participate in the unionizing process and was not working at the bakery at the time.