Late Sunday morning, Madeline Buitelaar sped toward a group of Tartine employees passing out union stickers and posters to customers and passersby outside of the bakery-café on Durant Avenue in Berkeley. She wanted to know whether to continue buying food at Tartine, now that employees of the San Francisco-based company have made public their desire to form a union. She and her husband planned to go to a pizza pop-up that night at Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco.
“A lot of people almost make a joke of how expensive their bread is and their pastries are and I’m willing to pay that, but I’m not willing to pay it if their workers are not being supported,” Buitelaar said.
The action outside Tartine that day — in Berkeley and also at three other locations in San Francisco — was meant to raise public awareness about the employees’ intent to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, an effort that’s been underway for about a year, but which was announced on Feb. 6 in a letter addressed to Tartine’s CEO Chris Jordan and the general managers at four Bay Area locations. Almost 150 employees signed the letter, which asked for a voice in how the company is run and a “fair balance of power between the workers and management.”
But on Monday afternoon, Tartine owners and management had an answer — they declined the employees’ request for union recognition. In a letter signed by co-founders Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson and CEO Chris Jordan, they stated their decision was to ensure Tartine workers “have an equal say on the issue” and a chance to “consider changing their mind.” The letter said that some employees felt pressured to support the union. The union and its supporters, the letter stated, “will attempt to tarnish Tartine’s reputation if they do not get what they want.”
The letter also outlined that the company will hold meetings – described as “Town Halls” – at each of the four stores this week to “begin a respectful two-way conversation.”
After hearing the response from management, the workers filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. The election will likely take place between four to six weeks, said Agustin Ramirez, the lead organizer for the ILWU in Northern California.
For now, whether or not Tartine employees will successfully join the union isn’t clear, but the workers and their supporters say that something has to happen to protect workers’ rights.
When it first opened in 2002, Tartine was a single neighborhood bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District, but has since gained international acclaim and has expanded with locations across the Bay Area, Los Angeles and South Korea.
Tartine’s Berkeley location opened in September 2019 on the ground floor of the Graduate Berkeley. It is a small operation with 19 employees. The tight-knit group of workers at the Southside bakery told Berkeleyside that they unanimously support the union campaign and signed onto the public letter.
On Sunday, as Tartine employees poured espresso and served food to customers, co-workers with the day off stood outside in blustering wind with union pins on their jackets saying to anyone who passed by: “Hey, good morning, will you support the effort of Tartine workers? We’re forming a union.”
Some customers shirked the workers’ entreaties and sped off on foot, coffee or pastry in hand.
“No one talked to me. This is my first time here,” one young man said after purchasing a beverage inside.
Others, like Rex Larre, who has a friend that works at Tartine and lives in downtown Oakland, came to the bakery after hearing the workers were unionizing. “I thought it would be worth it to make the extra drive to come support workers who are organizing and hopefully management will respect their wishes and they will get more customers like me who are so willing to support businesses that actually support their workers and give them a fair wage.”
Workers at the Tartine store in Berkeley said that in addition to getting higher wages, a union is necessary for them to maintain consistent working hours and health care and secure a level of transparency about management decisions. Workers say employees at the Berkeley location with no experience start out making minimum wage, which is $15.59 an hour in Berkeley.
Kyle Lypka works at the Tartine on Durant and his boyfriend works at another Tartine location.
“My whole household is under Tartine,” said Lypka, adding “Tartine pays the rent completely.” He wants more job security because he and his partner also rely on rent control, which also feels tenuous. “We sort of wait for the other shoe to drop at all times,” he said.
Mason Lopez, who worked at other Tartine locations for over a year before joining the Berkeley location in September, said by phone that they struggle with decreasing work hours, which affects their access to health care.
“It’s not sustainable,” Lopez said. “I can’t go to the doctor, or to the dentist, or pay for prescriptions that I need to live my everyday life, but I still have to make money to pay rent, which I can barely pay because I’m working 19 hours or 16 hours.”
When Lopez started at Tartine they worked around 30 hours, which made them eligible for health care, whereas now they work under 20.
Lopez said they are further perplexed by sparse working hours given the increase in business Tartine in Berkeley has enjoyed since UC Berkeley students returned for the spring semester.
In their 18 months with the company, Lopez said they received one $1 raise from the minimum wage starting rate.
Gin Hart, who used to work at Tartine in Berkeley full-time but now works one day a week, said by phone the central focus of the workers right now is to collectively identify their main workplace concerns and bargain their first contract.
“The union model is one of the very few ways that give working people the agency to reach for what they need rather than scrambling for what they need,” said Hart.
Sam Singer, a communication strategist working with Tartine, told Berkeleyside by phone that in the upcoming town hall meetings managers will discuss with employees the benefits and drawbacks of joining a union. “It’s standard operating procedure for both sides, both the union and for management, to meet with workers and make their cases about their respective positions,” he said.
Singer said the company will bring up economic concerns as well as the wages and benefits of employees at similar bakeries in the area. “The employees need to keep in mind that Tartine is a small, local company working in an extremely competitive business with small profit margins,” he said.
Ramirez of the ILWU disagrees. He sees Tartine as an international corporation. “As it is right now, Tartine is growing leaps and bounds and workers are being left behind and that’s what prompted this union drive,” Ramirez said.
But, as the campaign drags on, workers at Tartine in Berkeley say the campaign to form a union has created warm camaraderie among workers and even in the wider Bay Area community. “I saw some people who I never met at a bar two tables away last night wearing the button and I was like, ‘oh hey what’s up,’” Hart said. “It’s a really great way to connect with each other and form community.”
Lypka agreed, saying the campaign to form a union “makes it feel less like an alienated job where I’m just alone.”
“If I were working at the old café that I used to work at, I’d be very inspired right now,” said Hart. “I want this for everybody.”