San Francisco Chocolate Factory Workers Are Organizing a Union
Workers at San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate are unionizing with the ILWU, the longshore workers’ union with a long history of militant action and radical politics. We spoke with them about life and work at the chocolate factory.
- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Last week, workers at Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco took the occasion of an all-hands meeting to announce that they are unionizing (they worried management would mute them or end the meeting, but that did not happen). They estimate around fifty people at the company’s four locations will be in the bargaining unit. While Dandelion’s CEO Todd Masonis told Mission Local that he was receptive to “anyone who’s working hard to make for a better company,” Dandelion did not respond to the union’s request for voluntary recognition. As a result, Dandelion Union has filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.
Dandelion is organizing with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), an independent union with a storied history in the Bay Area. They’ll be part of Local 6, which includes other recently organized food and beverage workers such as those employed at Anchor Brewing, which unionized two years ago, and Tartine Bakery, which organized last year, as well as those whose unions go back decades, such as Guittard Chocolate, another chocolate factory that has been with ILWU for more than forty years.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke with Christine Keating, who has worked at Dandelion for seven years, and Catherine Liu, who has been there for a year and a half. Both are members of Dandelion’s “chocolate experiences” team. Pre-COVID-19, they gave factory tours, taught classes, led tastings, and ran off-site events. Now, they still do some of that, but remotely: teaching truffle-making classes from their kitchens, mailing kits to participants’ homes.
Other Dandelion union members include chocolate-makers, the packaging team, the confections team, the pastry team, warehouse workers, and retail and customer service workers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
One of the big issues is top-down decision-making. There have been a lot of decisions that have been made for us, not with us, by management. We want a more democratic workplace. A lot of other things tie into that: we want more equitable wages, more transparency from management, and a safer workplace, both physically safer and emotionally safer, where HR complaints don’t make you a target for retaliation or mistreatment.
What are the physical safety concerns?
The safety concerns are mainly about repetitive stress injuries on the hands-on chocolate-making or production teams. The packaging team does a lot of detailed, hands-on, repetitive work. No matter how many breaks you take or stretching that you do, it becomes very, very stressful on your hands and your wrists. They have very high product goals set for them. They do all of the wrapping and foiling for the bars that come out of our 16th Street factory. They also are making all of the gift sets, which all have hand-tied bows on them.
The chocolate-making side works with a lot of heavy machinery. People who are on the tempering side of chocolate-making work with a machine that vibrates pretty intensely, and also move back and forth between pulling down big machines like melangers and scraping out the insides, carrying around heavy bags of beans, chocolates, anything in between. That becomes strenuous, especially if your team is understaffed.
When you ask why we’re unionizing — personally, I have had no bad experiences at Dandelion, and I love working there. My experience compared to other union organizers has been different. But I don’t want to be an at-will employee anymore. I have experienced being laid off with little notice before. I was going to take that [chance] again for Dandelion, but if there’s an opportunity to unionize and not have that be the case, I would love that.
I’m still new, so maybe my experience hasn’t been tainted yet. But in union meetings, listening to everybody and getting close to people, I have heard stories that are quite horrific. I want to support everybody else who hasn’t had as good an experience as mine.
Christine, you mentioned HR. Recently, some Dandelion workers met with HR about being understaffed, and the company responded by closing their location. What are people’s experiences with HR, and what’s the difference between HR and a union?
There’s a definite difference. First off, your experience at Dandelion depends on your manager. If your manager is abusive or isn’t taking the needs of the team seriously, when you go to HR, at least for some of us, instead of dealing with that issue, the employee is made to feel as if it is them and their attitude that are the problem. They are typically retaliated against with what are called “performance improvement plans,” which are essentially a probation period. There are a lot of stories of people trying to bring their concerns to upper management and to HR, and instead of getting any relief, they get retaliation.
While the closure you referred to was not what started this unionization effort, it galvanized us over the last two weeks to go public after a year and a half of organizing. The Valencia chocolate-makers told management that they were understaffed. They were invited to attend a meeting with HR, the CEO Todd [Masonis], and the head of production. They sat down for the meeting at 4:30 PM on a Tuesday, expressed that they were understaffed, and Todd responded by saying that the situation didn’t seem sustainable and that the Valencia factory should be indefinitely shut down.
He called it a pause, but that pause included an ultimatum to the five chocolate-makers. They were told they could either take a layoff and get $1,000 severance or find a job at the 16th Street factory. There was no guarantee they’d make the same money or have the same schedule, and it might be an entirely different type of job. They had until Thursday at noon to decide. Some of the workers left that meeting thinking it might have only been a proposed idea, but the next morning at our all-company meeting, Todd presented this as a done deal. It didn’t seem like something that had been in the works, but like something that had been decided the night before, and it was presented to us as if it was a mutual decision with the chocolate-makers. This is how HR often responds, with something that felt and looks retaliatory.
When there were racist incidents at Dandelion, a lot of that was funneled back to management and HR. We believe that a union can help us to advocate for better promotion plans to get more kinds of people into management and that it can give us somewhere else to go if we feel that HR is retaliating against us. I remember when we learned that we’d be able to have union representation in HR meetings — that would change so much and be a huge shift for the better.
On that subject, we haven’t mentioned DISC, which is the diversity, inclusion, steering committee that we created in 2020, around the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s been difficult for the leaders of that committee to research and then implement what they want to the rest of the company. There’s a disconnect, and I’m hoping that through our union, they can get their say, because we want equity among all races and genders and sexualities.
What has it been like to work with the ILWU, and why did you decide to join Local 6?
The folks who started off the union were from production teams — the packaging and chocolate-making teams — and they started out by talking to people that they knew in DSA San Francisco, and DSA got them together with folks from ILWU. They chose to go with the ILWU for the same reason Anchor and Tartine did, which is that they are a Bay Area union that does a lot of good for craft industry makers. They also have Heath Ceramics and Guittard Chocolate, which have been in the local for a long time, so it made sense for us to be a part of that.
Working with them has been a contrast to the way we sometimes feel with management. Someone from ILWU will come to a meeting with an idea, such as delaying going public or hosting an event, and you can see the hesitation from Dandelion people to question someone from the ILWU. But they’ll sense that and explain that it’s just an idea, and that they want to hear if people disagree. This happened recently, and people spoke up, explaining their reasons for sticking to the original plan. We had a real conversation, and when the consensus was to stick to our original idea, they were completely supportive. That is the type of support and collaboration that we don’t feel with Dandelion upper management.
How has the community in San Francisco responded to your union?
I’m currently running our social media accounts, so I get to see the Instagram tags and Facebook comments. There’s been so much support from people who already loved going to Dandelion and who are now telling the workers at the pickup window, “Go union, we’re so excited for you!” On day one of going public, we had people coming up to the Valencia pickup window to say they support us. Additionally, we have a petition of support, and within two days of launching it, we had around eight hundred signatures.
When I learned that the Bay Area was a pro-union area, that made me feel a lot stronger about wanting to unionize. Knowing that this area is so supportive has really helped.
Neither of you has mentioned wages. What are people paid, and how do you get by in San Francisco on a working-class income?
It is really tough. One of the problems is that there’s not a lot of transparency within the company about pay. We’re all on slightly different pay structures. For example, because I’m former management, I’m salaried and make $50,000, while Catherine is not salaried. Other people who do just as much work as me are hourly. There’s a little more structure on the production teams in terms of the path to raises and promotions, but it’s the luck of the draw and depends on your team. You have no idea how to progress or how to advocate for yourself in terms of getting a raise.
My being salaried was communicated as if it was a kindness to me. They also told me in the same conversation not to ask for a raise for at least another year or two. I wasn’t sure how to advocate for myself because I’ve also been told over my years at Dandelion that raises are not based on merit, tenure, or our review cycle. So this is my third year without a raise. I’m not advocating for a union so I can get a raise — I’m more interested in people being raised up closer to what those of us who are salaried are paid — but if I was somebody who needed more money or who felt that there was a big disconnect between the work I was doing and what I was being paid, I would not know how to remedy that.
Before I worked at Dandelion, I worked at TCHO Chocolate, doing the exact same job as I do now. I did that for six years, and I was getting paid a pretty high amount for that job. I got laid off, and Dandelion started me at starting rate, which was $6 less an hour than what I’d made at TCHO. I understood that I might not get the same pay at Dandelion, but getting starting rate with six years of experience was worrying. But I fell in love with the job, so I decided to stick it out and figure out how to get more money as time goes on. Whenever I met with HR or my manager, I’d mention pay, and they never told me how a raise could happen. My manager fought for me for that raise, and I just got one — though even with it, I make less than $50,000. It’s a much higher raise than I’d expected, and being treated so well did affect how I felt about unionizing. But then I remember that not everybody has the manager that we have, and also, what happens if one day she decides to quit? Being in a union is going to be a much more stable situation.
How has management responded to the union?
We just got a message from our CEO, and it was very neutral. It said, “I’ve received this, and I’m starting to learn about unions.” We weren’t surprised by that response. It felt very measured. As we put it in our letter to management, we’re looking forward to having productive, collaborative conversations about how to use this union to have a voice for workers and to make this company better. I’ve been here for almost seven years, and you don’t stay somewhere unless you think it is or it can be really great. The people that I work with are proof of that — I love all of them, and I think that this union is the best way for our voices to be part of decision-making.
Why are you unionizing?