- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On Thursday, January 18, workers at the artisanal bread maker She Wolf Bakery in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. They are seeking to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If the workers win a union, the bargaining unit would cover twenty-three employees at the bakery.
She Wolf Bakery is owned by the Marlow Collective, a company that owns a number of restaurants and food and beverage brands in Brooklyn; She Wolf is the first shop under the Marlow umbrella to publicly try to unionize. The organizing effort comes as a growing number of food workers across the country seek to form unions, notably including at Starbucks nationwide, and following a recent union victory by Workers United at Brooklyn pizzeria Barboncino. This week, Jacobin contributor Sara Wexler spoke with three She Wolf workers to discuss their organizing drive and what they hope to accomplish with a union.
What inspired the union drive?
It started with a few of us having conversations in the spring of last year. It began as we were starting to get to know our coworkers and noticing patterns of discrimination in terms of who gets promoted; it seemed to be based on race, gender, and language.
In the summer we started reaching out to more of our coworkers. That’s when there were a lot of concerns about extreme heat in the oven room, and our coworkers were telling us that their concerns were not being properly addressed by management.
That’s when conversations started about taking more formal collective action. We began forming a solidarity union [a union without legal bargaining status] with the help of Brandworkers, which is an organization that helps with resources for unions like legal services and translation services, because a few of our coworkers speak Spanish as their primary language. We ended up deciding that unionizing with RWDSU would be the best strategy to get all our concerns addressed.
For me, a major motivator for wanting to unionize was climate change–related issues. Last summer, I worked most of my shifts on the oven, baking all the bread. I was doing very physical labor four, five days a week in front of the 500-degree oven. The room that I was in had no climate control, so it was getting up to 107 degrees — that was the hottest I saw, but it was consistently above 100 degrees.
Even though there was empathy from management, they were like, “Well, you still have to bake the bread; someone has to bake the bread.” I felt it really taking a toll on my body and [thought], we’re living in a time where this is not getting better. We’re getting hotter and hotter summers every year. We’re seeing other natural disasters that our market workers are working in, including floods and wildfire smoke, and we’re not getting compensated for that.
We’re putting our bodies in really hard situations, and there’s no hazard pay. We’re just expected to proceed with business as usual. And because our job has such a physical component, it would be nice if we had affordable health insurance. The health care plan that is offered to us is just way too expensive for the wages that we are offered. All those things led me to wanting to unionize.
Personally, in the fall when I was making deliveries, there was one day in particular — it was when there was that big storm, when all the streets were flooding, and the National Weather Service said that people shouldn’t be traveling at all in the city. A few of us started sharing that with our managers, and they didn’t do anything about it.
There were little ponds at the intersections, and I ended up being stuck in traffic for hours, and the heat in the van happened to not be working, so my feet and my socks were just soaking wet for hours. So that was pretty bad. That experience gave us all, at least on the market and wholesale side, something to think about and motivated us more.
You mentioned issues with discrimination.
It’s hard not to see a pattern of mostly white, cis, heterosexual men receiving promotions or raises, and people who do not fall into those categories struggling to be seen in the same way — even if they have the same qualifications, if not more qualifications.
We have seen white men moved through promotions and pay faster than other coworkers, and non–English speakers are often held back in promotions or phases. I would say those are things that we’ve noticed as a collective.
How did the organizing start? Were you doing it mostly through face-to-face conversations, or online?
It started out just getting drinks after work. We’re all pretty friendly with each other, and it’s a small company, so we started hanging out and talking about stuff. And then as we got bigger, we at some point moved to meeting virtually.
We formed an organizing committee, which were people that were interested in taking a larger role in organizing. Then we started floating questions among our coworkers about how they in general felt about unions. We started collecting people’s grievances, things that they were unhappy with in the workplace.
After we had done that and had our organizing committee, we hosted an all-staff meeting in the park where we hung out and came together. It was a sweet and tender moment of being like, “Oh wow, we’re showing up, people are right here in person that were on Zoom.” Even if people weren’t sure yet, they cared enough to show up and hear about it. I think that helped us gain some confidence, and we started asking questions about how we wanted to organize.
We have had weekly meetings, or sometimes two or three meetings a week, to discuss our plans and figure out that we have really operated based off of consensus. It was important to us that nobody felt like they were being left behind. So we had one-on-ones with all of our coworkers and took our time to make sure that we were trained and ready to combat any union-busting tactics.
Two or three months ago, we had a meeting again at a coworker’s house because it was cold this time. I think almost everyone that was eligible for card signing came, and we went through it all, and then we had a vote on who wanted to unionize: 100 hundred percent of the people at that meeting were like, “Yes, I want to do this.”
The fact that there was so much organization before reaching out to RWDSU is a cool part of our story. The organizing has been self-motivated and driven by the hard work and dedication of our coworkers.
How are you feeling about the prospects for recognition or winning an election? What do you see as the main issues to address in a contract, and how do you hope the union will change your experience at work?
We are hoping that management will voluntarily recognize us, but it’s feeling like that is not super likely. But we feel very confident that we can win an election. A vast majority of my coworkers and I have signed union cards and voiced their support. So if it does go to an election, so be it — I think we’ll still win.
I feel confident because of the way that this has all come together, because it’s been so self-motivated by the workers, whether She Wolf voluntarily recognizes us or if we win the election. For me, wages that are not only livable but also reflect experience and time given to the bakery — without a very low roof to that — are important. And health care that’s affordable for our wages, as well as having a seat at the table to make decisions about how things happen at the bakery.
Hazard pay is something that we have all discussed, especially since dealing with extreme weather stuff, on the bakery side particularly with the oven, and then on the market side working outside in below-freezing temperatures in the winter.
We’re definitely prepared and ready to engage with good-faith bargaining. I think one of the main things we’re hoping for is a wage increase. For nonsupervisory positions, our wages are capped at $22.50. So for someone who works there for ten years, $22.50 is the most they can make right now.
An affordable health care plan, hazard pay, more concrete language and plans around discrimination in the workplace — I would really love to see. And I know I’m not the only one that would love to see some climate change discourse and thinking about the future and the world that we are moving into.
Hopefully the union addressing all these concerns allows people to stay at She Wolf for longer. I think most of us want to. Most of us are doing this because we like the work and a lot of what She Wolf represents and does.
I hope that it can continue to be a sustainable job for me and also a sustainable job for other people. Turnover in this industry is crazy, and when you’re doing something that’s as skilled and hands-on as bread is in the way that She Wolf does it.
[I hope that the union can help] keep people so they’re happy and continuing to enjoy the work. It makes the product better; it makes the bakery better.
What did you find to be the biggest challenge in organizing throughout this process?
Having bakers’ hours and trying to schedule with people who don’t have bakers’ hours to have regular meetings.
Some of us are waking up at 2:00 a.m. to get to work at 3:00 a.m. Scheduling meetings could sometimes be challenging, but we were very fortunate that we got in touch with Brandworkers very early on who helped us organize.
And maybe this wasn’t so much a challenge, but a question [we had to confront]: “Is it bad enough that we have to unionize?” Which is a silly question because a union doesn’t have to be responding to a horrible workplace. Even though we all have grievances, I want to see workers all over being organized. A world where we can use our labor in more strategic ways would be so powerful.
So we just kept coming back to, “This is part of something bigger.” And also we do need a union. There are things that we legitimately want to change in our workplace.
What would you say have you learned from trying to organize a union?
I’ll never forget the feeling of being in the first meeting that I was a part of with other workers, and this instant sense of solidarity and community with each other. It made sense right away to me.
Learning that’s possible in the workplace has been super powerful. I am a fairly new mom, and that journey is so disruptive to your sense of self and what matters; being a part of this has been grounding and has been giving me a new sense of purpose.
Anything else to add?
She Wolf and Marlow Collective’s public images are very sustainability focused, and a large part that is well-deserved: using all local or mostly local grains in our breads, and selling our breads locally, and donating what doesn’t get sold. But a large part of what sustainability means is also making sure that it’s a sustainable place to work at. So I would want the workers included in this image of sustainability.