Inside the Movement to Unionize Tartine Bakery

How a neighborhood bakery turned into a global brand in the middle of a union fight

Photo: Tartine Union

In San Francisco, a city with a culture built on student movements, public demonstrations, and labor organizing, people power usually wins. But it’s not clear whether that will play out in the battle between employees of Tartine Bakery — a famed pastry and bread destination — who are seeking unionization, and its owners who are staunchly opposing it.

The 20-year-old bakery, which built a following for its breads that claim to be less food and more spiritual experience, has grown from a small neighborhood bakery in 2002 to an international brand with multiple locations in the Bay Area and plans slated for South Korea. The quick expansion has left workers frustrated about communication, compensation, and other issues.

Last month, 141 out of a total of about 215 employees delivered a letter asking Tartine owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson to voluntarily recognize their union and that they sought to negotiate for more livable wages and consistent work hours, among other asks.

The response: No, thank you.

Ever since, the fight has gained traction in the media as one of SF’s most influential brands comes under fire. Employees have accused management of union-busting tactics, including hiring a firm used by Donald Trump to resist the labor movement and posting anti-union merchandise on Instagram.

Tomorrow, employees at the three San Francisco locations will hold an official vote on whether to join the union, and the Berkeley location will vote Friday. If a simple majority votes in favor, they will form a bargaining committee and move forward.

Hannah Gerard, an employee at Tartine Manufactory — the 5,000-square-foot restaurant and bakery located in the Mission — says that the push to unionize is both about day-to-day qualms and, more importantly, larger structural issues.

“I do like my managers, I think they’re good at their jobs,” Gerard said. “It goes so much higher than them — you know, it’s corporate. Tartine is trying to say that they aren’t a corporation, but I’ve seen it expand so rapidly, and in my opinion, it’s not a small business.”

Tartine markets itself as being committed to process as well as product — it’s not just what Tartine makes, but how. And a part of that how, Tartine says, is openness. “We are committed to transparency and approachability every step of the way,” the bakery’s website reads.

However, employees say transparency has been something to be desired this past month. At first, Prueitt and Robertson hired public relations consultant Sam Singer, famous for his crisis management work with Chevron and the San Francisco Zoo (though, when I reached out to Singer for comment, he said he was no longer working with the bakery.) Then, Tartine hired Cruz and Associates, a union-busting firm Donald Trump hired to fight workers at his Las Vegas hotel.

Management recently closed locations certain days to hold what the union referred to as “mandatory anti-union meetings,” facilitated by Cruz and Associates. The closing impacted workers due to loss of tips. Gerard also says that Cruz and Associates has held daily “captive audience meetings,” where she says they attempt to persuade workers not to unionize.

“In my opinion, the anti-union effort has been incredibly aggressive,” Gerard said.

Tartine management all either declined to comment or did not respond to TBI’s requests, but in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Prueitt said that while she’s supportive of other workplace unions, she’d like to keep Tartine “union-free.” In a statement posted to Instagram, Prueitt says while there are good reasons for unions to form — citing exploitation of children and farm workers — she asks: “Given our history of providing competitive wages and benefits and a creative work environment, why the push to unionize?”

Prueitt also states that Tartine was “targeted by a professional union organizer” and though it may appear that the business is expanding, the post says that they are “still struggling to turn a profit.”

Mason Lopez, who also worked at Tartine Manufactory before moving to the Berkeley location, said he wants to unionize because leadership at both locations has been “disorganized” and working conditions “harsh.” Lopez says that soon after doors in the East Bay opened, oversight and assistance from higher-ups dropped off, and he says now the storefront is completely worker-led.

Lopez, a 20-year veteran in the service industry, said Tartine is the first workplace he’s been a part of that’s attempted to unionize.

“You know, it’s disheartening,” Lopez said. “You want to be part of something that’s making a great product. But when your days get more and more stressful as time passes, it’s kind of heartbreaking.”

One of the biggest frustrations is pay. Many employees work at minimum wage (in San Francisco that’s $15.59 an hour), which isn’t even close to a livable wage in the Bay Area. Even workers who make slightly above minimum wage often have to juggle two or three jobs in the gig economy to get by.

That includes Lopez, who lives with multiple roommates and has a second job, but still struggles to afford life in the Bay Area.

The union is motivated to have a “seat at the table,” Gerard explained. In other words: They want power to make decisions. And decisions have been made: multimillion-dollar moves to expand the business in-state as well as internationally. Early in 2015 Tartine planned to merge with Blue Bottle Coffee. Nearly seven months later they pulled out. Separate companies “makes the most sense,” they announced. Then they decided to expand their reach in the Bay Area: In 2016, Tartine opened up a bakery in the Inner Sunset and also Tartine Manufactory. A Berkeley location opened in November of 2019.

In 2018, Eater reported that shortly after opening its first location in South Korea, Tartine had plans for three to four more storefronts. In order to prepare for the first opening, bakers from Korea worked with those at the flagship store in San Francisco. There were plans in 2017 for a Coffee Manufactory in Jack London Square in Oakland.

All the while, millions of dollars went into constructing Tartine’s downtown Los Angeles Manufactory, an artisanal food haven comprising a coffee bar, ice cream window, bakery, supper club, and pizza restaurant, only to close less than a year after it opened. It was going to be so good, and then it wasn’t.

With money made available for partnership, expansion, and eventual contraction, Lopez said he and others wondered why there wasn’t enough to raise wages. In Prueitt’s Instagram statement, she says the locations in Korea and Los Angeles are funded by “outside investment, and have no financial crossover with the San Francisco businesses.”

“Our failure to communicate this business structure to our employees is something I regret not sharing sooner, as it’s lead [sic] to so much misunderstanding,” the post reads.

Workers have received support from other San Francisco institutions. Anchor Brewing company, which unionized last year, has been vocal in favor of Tartine workers. Earlier this week, the Harvey Milk Democratic Club announced their support on Twitter, as did former congressional candidate Shahid Buttar, saying, “They do excellent work […] all workers deserve their rights, including the right to form a union.”

Berkeley’s District 7 Council Member Rigel Robinson sent an email to Prueitt expressing his support for the Tartine union, to which he received a one-word response of, “Why?”

San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston has also been vocal about his support for the Tartine Union.

“This is a union town,” Preston said, noting that when Anchor Brewing Company workers unionized last year with the larger restaurant community behind them, “if you went around San Francisco and looked, there were support signs for Anchor workers up in bars and restaurants all across the city. The word really got out. I think you’re seeing similar support for Tartine.”

The widening income gap between tech workers and service industry workers is why we’ve seen a push for higher wages and better working conditions, he added.

“So much of the working class of the city has not seen any of this increase, or gained as their regional economy has boomed — that’s what fuels some of the organizing work that’s occurring at places like Tartine,” Preston said.

As they prepare for tomorrow’s vote, employees agree they believe in the bakery and only want to make it a better place to work.

“I think that we’re gonna succeed,” Lopez says. “Whatever grievances I personally have, the message we collectively want people to know is that we don’t want Tartine to stop. What we want is Tartine to succeed. We want to be able to go home at night and not have to worry about how we pay rent and go to the doctor and buy groceries. We want to go to work and be proud of what we do.”

Inside the Movement to Unionize Tartine Bakery was originally published in The Bold Italic on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Inside the Movement to Unionize Tartine Bakery