While chocolate factories tend to be the substance of dreams, workers at Dandelion Chocolate in the Mission District say their experience has instead become a chocolate-covered nightmare.
“There’s been a long pattern of difficult decisions made for us, especially a lot of things that have come into focus over the last year during the pandemic,” said Christine Keating, who has worked at Dandelion for nearly seven years.
That includes worker safety, hours, and overall working conditions during the pandemic — a particularly stressful time for factory and food service workers locally and across the country. She said that as employees have been cut, chocolate production goals have ramped up.
“Even before that,” Keating added, “people who brought up problems were treated like they were the problems — and they were the only ones who felt this way, and they were siloed and retaliated against.”
So, Dandelion employees are kicking off a campaign to form a union — the latest effort in a unionization wave that has swept several mid-sized businesses in San Francisco, including Anchor Brewery and Tartine Bakery. And like those businesses, Dandelion is doing so under the aegis of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 6.
The Dandelion workers formally informed Dandelion’s leadership of their intention to unionize this morning, and an election will likely be held in four to six weeks. Right now, 50 employees are on board, Keating said, though some of her coworkers are still “on the fence.”
“Obviously, we’re trying to stand together in solidarity for better wages, a safer workplace, and accountability and transparency,” she said.
In an interview, Todd Masonis, Dandelion’s owner and founder, did not sound outright resistant to the effort. “Anyone who’s working hard to make for a better company is something I’m receptive to,” he said. “I’m really eager to hear what people have to say.”
As he has not been given a formal letter, he would not commit either way on recognizing the union. “I’m not an expert on the matter,” he said. “Obviously, I would like to become more educated.”
Overall, he said, he understood the workers’ anxiety, and said that the pandemic was a challenging time for everyone at the company, noting that Dandelion almost went out of business last year. “The pandemic has been challenging, and we’ve been doing what we can,” he said.
Although Keating and other workers told Mission Local that the effort has been in the works for nearly a year-and-a-half, decisions by Masonis in the last week put them into overdrive.
Tim Ryan, a Dandelion chocolate maker at the store on 18th and Valencia, said his team has been cut from around 11 to six workers, but they are still expected to make as many as 600 chocolate bars a day, a similar number as before the staffing cuts. “We couldn’t continue on in the pace we were going,” Ryan said.
Yet after the workers confronted Masonis about the issue several weeks ago, the owner last Tuesday gave the workers a “proposal,” Ryan said. Masonis said he would “pause” the Valencia Street production site and transfer all production to Dandelion’s 16th Street factory. As such, the chocolate makers had a choice: take an unspecified job at 16th Street — which could pay less — or take a voluntary layoff and a $1,000 severance.
“He gave us until Thursday at noon to decide whether to stay or go,” Ryan said.
Several chocolate makers took the meager buyout, but Ryan and Chyler Barraca, another chocolate maker who was at the meeting with Masonis, decided to stay. “It was more like an ultimatum,” Barraca recalled.
Masonis said that his decision to shut down the Valencia site had more to do with addressing the concerns about the production pace while taking the time to more “thoughtfully” build a team up at the location. He added that the employees were offered “equivalent roles” at 16th Street, though their schedules would still need to be hashed out.
Furthermore, he said, the $1,000 severance for employees that chose to leave would have come with six months of unemployment, with benefits, from the government — not a terrible deal, he said.
But Keating said the low staffing and higher expectations extends to other areas of the business that specializes in producing its high-end, handmade chocolate. She said the team that wraps the chocolate bars — all done by hand, including the pristinely tied bowties on gift boxes — has been shaved down to just a handful. “It’s very detail-oriented work,” she said, but that work has caused a lot “repetitive stress injuries” for the workers.
Meanwhile, Dandelion is producing more chocolate this year. In the first two months of last year, Dandelion was producing between 24,000 to 31,000 chocolate bars per month. This year, production has jumped to between 35,000 and 36,000 a month, she said.
And physical conditions of the job are not Dandelion’s only problem, the workers said. Last summer, Mission Local reported that racism and a lack of diversity permeated the company’s culture, and leadership took few steps to cure it, according to former workers there.
Although Dandelion took a few performative steps to address the issue following the bad publicity, “nothing has really changed,” Barraca said.
Masonis rebutted that the company has fulfilled numerous commitments to making Dandelion more inclusive, such as implicit bias training and hiring diversity consultants. But, he said, “We’re committed to do doing more and we’ll continue to do more.”
The nascent unionization effort could be facing an uphill battle. Although Masonis did not outright reject the effort, other local organizing efforts have been met with resistance from business owners.
In December, a years-long unionization effort by veterinary technicians at the VCA Animal Hospital in the Mission was quashed after the multibillion-dollar VCA corporation shut down the site and sold it to a local hospital.
Meanwhile, Tartine’s owners have resisted the union, and right now its formation is being battled out at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., according to Augustin Ramirez, an organizer with the ILWU who is helping Tartine’s workers organize, as well as the Dandelion employees.
“The workers of Dandelion saw the movement here in San Francisco with young workers,” Ramirez said. “This is a very young workforce — they saw what happened at Anchor and Tartine, and they’re following in their steps.”
He added that Dandelion would not be the first chocolate manufacturer the ILWU has helped to form — Guittard Chocolate has been with the union for the last 40 years.
“We do represent chocolate,” Ramirez said. “It’s nothing new for the ILWU.”