The line outside Tartine Bakery, March 2013.

Workers at Tartine Bakery this morning delivered letters to management at four Bay Area locations, formally stating they plan to unionize. 

The letters were delivered at around 8 a.m. to the Tartine Bakery at Guerrero and 18th, the Manufactory at Alabama and Harrison, the Inner Sunset location at Ninth Avenue near Lincoln, and Tartine’s new Berkeley location. Some 215 employees work at these locations, and the letters delivered today bore the signatures of more than 140 of them. 

If Tartine doesn’t opt to recognize the union — few employers do so at this initial stage — its workers will file a Request for Certification petition with the National Labor Relations Board as soon as Friday. 

“I didn’t know anything about that,” said Chief Operating Officer Chris Jordan when reached by phone at shortly after 8 a.m.; he said he’d call back when he had more information. A message for founder Chad Robertson has not yet been returned. Communications director Caryl Chinn has also not yet returned a message.

Today’s letter delivery comes one year to the day after workers at Anchor Brewing submitted a similar letter to brewery management, and that’s no coincidence. Tartine workers, like those at Anchor, are working with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and organizers from the Democratic Socialists. 

A succession of Tartine workers described to Mission Local an increasingly strained workplace as the bakery founded in the Mission in 2002 by Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt in recent years rapidly expanded across the state and overseas. Tartine now has five locations in the Bay Area; four in Seoul, South Korea; and two more planned in Los Angeles. It abruptly shuttered its vast downtown Los Angeles manufactury in December, after less than a year in business, laying off scores of workers on the spot a week before Christmas. 

img-205182938-0001 by Joe Eskenazi on Scribd

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This did not go unobserved by Northern California workers — who noticed both the heavy investment in an enterprise that rapidly failed, and the summary dismissal of many workers with no notice. A number of Bay Area Tartine employees told Mission Local that a union would give them a place at the table to discuss longstanding issues regarding pay, benefits, scheduling and equity between front-of-house and back-of-house workers. 

“I love my co-workers and I love the work we do, but I feel like management and their corporate push is making me not want to stay,” said Matthew Torres, a barista at the Berkeley location. “A lot of part-time people have lost their health coverage and cannot see their doctors anymore. At Berkeley, within a week, we were given notice they’d cut our hours; I am working fewer hours and making less money than I ever have.” 

Fernando Hernandez is a busser at the Manufactory on Alabama. He started at Tartine three-and-a-half years ago as a dishwasher making $14 an hour, and has seen raises only when city minimum wage requirements mandate one. 

“They put up a big sign saying ‘this is the San Francisco minimum, and this is what we have to pay you,’” says the 23-year-old Guatemalan through a translator. He is married, with a child, and sends money back to his father, grandfather, and older brothers. This became more difficult when his schedule was recently cut back from five days a week to part-time. 

“This is a big issue,” he says. “Without any notice it was just reduced. Some weeks they let me work two days, some weeks three days.” Work on holidays, he continues, is not compensated extra, and the days off he received for Thanksgiving and Christmas were unpaid. 

“You can take vacations, but you don’t get paid for them,” says Hernandez. Pinched by his reduced schedule, Hernandez recently took out a loan to make rent on the home he shares with his wife and extended family. He is now paying that back, with interest, with his minimum-wage salary. 

Colleagues approached him five or six months ago to gauge his openness to unionizing. He jumped at the chance. “Right away I thought it was a good idea,” he says. “This will be a good opportunity to just make it more equitable.” 

The union drive would cover four Tartine Bay Area locations; the fifth outpost, at San Francisco International Airport, is already unionized due to airport labor agreements. At some 215 employees, Tartine’s Bay Area workforce dwarfs Anchor’s, which has about 62 workers. Tartine’s workforce is also more diverse than Anchor, which skews white and male. 

“Welcome to our union!” says the ILWU’s Chris Christensen as he embraces Anchor worker Brace Belden (in white jumpsuit). Photo taken March 13, 2019, by Joe Eskenazi.

Anchor workers in March 2019 officially voted to unionize. In December 2019, Anchor workers overwhelmingly voted to approve the contract negotiated with management. 

Agustin Ramirez, the ILWU organizer who handled the Anchor campaign, is also helming the Tartine drive. Since union elections require a bare majority of voting employees for ratification, Ramirez notes that having two-thirds of the workforce sign today’s letter is a sign of strength. 

“We believe that with the public here in San Francisco, we have a lot of leverage,” he says. “Consumers here are open-minded and if the price of bread was to go up a little, not significantly, they will be willing to pay a little more to make sure these jobs pay livable wages.” 

The Democratic Socialists will hold a rally on behalf of the Tartine workers at 24th Street Plaza at 6 p.m. Thursday (also a page out of the Anchor playbook). The workers boast support from Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Dean Preston, and Hillary Ronen — the three San Francisco supes in whose districts Tartine’s eateries lie. 

“At Tartine the employers are very generous people. They show kindness by providing food to community members during fires,” says Ronen. “The workers are asking for that same kind of respect and generosity so they can speak for themselves.” 

Update, 6:15 p.m.: Tartine spokeswoman Caryl Chinn e-mailed us the following statement:

This morning, we received a copy of a letter that was sent to the managers at Tartine Bakery’s four Bay Area locations. The letter states that many employees wish to be represented by the International Longshore Workers Union. This request is extremely important and deserves a thoughtful and thorough answer.

As there are several stakeholders (owners) in Tartine Bakery, we are required to consult with them on important operational matters like this. Given the importance of this matter to everyone, the leadership team is meeting as soon as possible and plan to respond to the letter more formally by Monday.

The ILWU’s Ramirez said, however, that the workers would be filing with the NLRB by Friday.

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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20 Comments

  1. Wow. I love the bread but the labor processes, not to mention the scab wages are ruining the taste. Good luck to the workers. We will all benefit from their union

  2. I’m all for fair labor practices, but the “behind the counter” workers at Tartine on Guerrero deserve a “timeout” more than a raise! Put ’em in the corner with a dunce cap. It’s as if they took their cue on customer service from NYC’s old Carnegie Deli. If the bread weren’t the best bread I’ve ever had, I wouldn’t set foot in there.
    True anecdote: Once went in looking for dessert to bring to dinner – and hopefully impress! – my restaurant-eer brother-in-law, so I went to “the best bakery in America” to see what they had. I explained that one person was lactose intolerant, and another trying to cut down on sugar, and asked what they’d recommend. With a literal eye-roll and a sneer, I was told: “Rainbow has some lovely vegan options.” Then they looked at the person behind me in line, and said “Next.” And I’m supposed to care if that guy has health insurance?!?

    1. I agree that is indeed terrible service, but blame management for letting that go on. And actually, yes, you are supposed to care if cranky people have health insurance; you might be surprised to learn that the world does not revolve around you and having your needs met to your expectations. Even nasty people get sick and deserve medical care.

      1. Yes Joe… yes you are. Also sounds like they didn’t have anything at their bakery for your family and their dietary needs and he suggested some of the LOVELY deserts at rainbow.

    2. Damn, someone being snide to you once means 150 people should not have health insurance? You seem like a very harsh person. Hopefully you don’t ever get treated like you treat these workers.

  3. The brand is already beginning to fail. I am sure unionization will be the final nail in the coffin. What employees are left should start looking for a new job.

  4. Now Tartine’s nasty, unhelpful employees can have total job security! Winning!

    P.S. The best bread in the City is still at the very unfashionable Acme store in the Ferry Building. They bake there and have many things that aren’t sold in stores. Unfortunately, there’s rarely a line, so it’s a place hipsters wouldn’t be seen dead at.

  5. Shame that a company known for excellence in quality doesn’t extend that to their management of employees. And things are slipping, like the SF health department shutdown in November for rodent droppings. I loved your cake but not if it’s baked with rat crap. And not if you treat employees like rat crap.

  6. Hey employees at Tartine that have learned how to make bread, start your own bakery and hire all of these people! If you make the same great tasting treats, SF folks would gladly visit your local shop vs. a big corporation. Take what you have learned at Tartine and turn that into a career for yourself.

    Put a business proposal together and start going to banks/investors to take out a business loan. You will be far better paid doing it this way vs. paying union folks to negotiate for you. All the money you pay to the union could be in the employee’s pockets.

    We need more small businesses!!!

  7. Honestly, even though I live two blocks from Tartine, I NEVER go there! The prices are ridiculously high, the cakes don’t excite me, and the service I’ve received there every time I’ve been dragged there by out-of-towners had been unfriendly, verging on rude. And given the super long lines, I really don’t get the appeal! There are FAR better bakeries in this city, where the lines are shorter, the service better, and the products tastier.

    While I hope that the employees are able to unionize and get better financial deals with their employer, it won’t really affect me when the prices go up. They are already too high for me to be tempted back in.

  8. Beautifully written piece.
    It’s sad that this next step of unionizing, is a sure step towards closing all the Tartine doors.
    We’ll miss you and your once excellent pain.

  9. The union election process overseen by the NLRB is generally fair. Tartine management has the right to their own persuasion campaign, so if they don’t want a union shop they should just ignore that last bulleted demand and fight. If two thirds of the shop signed the letter, though, maybe they should just agree to allow their workforce to unionize without waging a counter campaign. As for the customers, they’ll just have to get used to higher prices and staff that will be free to give them terrible customer service without fear of consequences.

  10. I want workers at the places I patronize to have good healthcare – for their sake but also for my own health and my kids’ health. Decent healthcare makes San Francisco a healthier community for all our families.

    If Tartine can afford to blow tens of millions of dollars in LA on a failed business effort, they’re making enough profit off of Bay Area workers to let them work a full schedule at a living wage with decent healthcare.

  11. If a worker making minimum wage in SF is sending money home to support four family members then there is obviously a problem….and the problem is not with Tartine’s owners. If they unionize, Tartine will fail and all the jobs will be gone because guess what, a business needs to be profitable .

    1. Why do you think paying workers a fair wage and helping them receive fair treatment is incompatible with a business being profitable? How profitable do they need to be? There are plenty of unionized businesses that are doing just fine. And if they’re expanding out internationally, there’s a good chance that they’re surviving off of VC money, and profits are far in the future.

  12. Unionizing is a sure way to diminish the quality of Tartine while also raising prices. Agree with other posts here that, given what I’ve experienced in there, the workers do not need guaranteed job security.

    1. Unionizing is a sure way to make sure the over 200 hourly employees working at Tartine have a reason to produce high quality – to protect a good job. Perhaps most of the employees are fed up with what management allows to happen at the sales counter (I hate it too!) and want that to change but are not given a voice at their work place. Perhaps most of the employees wonder who the 5% surcharge on each sale is supposed to be for (it’s been a long time since I bought at Tartine – do they still charge that?).

      It takes a lot of bad things to happen for a work force of 140 people spread over 4 different locations to agree that change is needed. You have to acknowledge that something has pushed the workers to a breaking point and that keeping the job and trying to fix the workplace issues are important enough to 140 people to sign a letter to management asking for change at their work place.

  13. Tartine like other businesses that rely on so many low wage workers are lucky to have the workers at all! At the rate things are going in SF, there will be few who live close enough to be able to commute to work for such low wages, and then have their hours cut with no notice! I am rather shocked at how far many have to come to work for low pay here in SF. Businesses will not be able to continue finding workers at all at this pace…..maybe Tartine should focus on taking care of their existing shops and workers and not cut their hours!

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