Today Is The Tartine Union Vote: The Moment of Truth for San Francisco’s Food Small Businesses

The time has come for the famed bread shop and their dedicated team members to vote on if they will unionize officially.

More than 200 workers at four Bay Area locations of the beloved bakery will soon decide whether they’re joining a union. The San Francisco locations—the original Tartine Bakery and Tartine Manufactory in the Mission and the Tartine in the Inner Sunset—vote today, while the Berkeley location votes tomorrow.

The campaign to unionize came from the open letter penned by two-thirds of the bakeries workforce. The company seeing massive fandom, growth, and expansion from San Francisco to Seoul, South Korea—workers felt that the communication (or lack there of), wages, and more did not meet the standards of what the company purports to the public face. Though, the workers of Tartine have gone on record saying that Tartine is their home and their pride, “We are proud to work at Tartine, and want Tartine to be the best it possibly can be,” the statement, which asks owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson to voluntarily recognize their union, reads. “Tartine is renowned for the quality of its products and service. We want it to also be renowned for being one of the best places to work in the Bay Area.”

Though management see’s this differently. 

“There are many restaurateurs holding their breath to see what happens,” said Tartine owner Elisabeth Prueitt told San Francisco Chronicle.

Prueitt and Robertson hope the bakery remains union-free. That’s no surprise to the pro-union workers, who have publicly accused management of union-busting over the past few weeks. They’re fighting for higher wages, better scheduling, job security and more benefits, like paid time off. Earlier this week, Robertson posted to his personal Instagram showing off anti-union merch—just cementing his place to the situation to the 200+ workers.

Prueitt, for her part, tells the Chronicle that while she’s supportive of unions in other cases, she’d like to keep Tartine union-free. It’s perhaps the first time the company has publicly stated its opposition to the unionization effort outright, though many of its past statements, along with its hiring of a controversial crisis communications expert to help handle PR, have also struck a cautionary note.

The workers of Tartine, however, are attempting to fight the good fight. Only 1.3% of the 12 million people who work in American restaurants are union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The few existing unionized San Francisco restaurants first organized decades ago—or they’re part of a hotel, airport or large corporation. Pro-union workers at the bakery hope to spark a movement. While some food-service workers are organized with unions like the United Food & Commercial Workers, the overwhelming majority of food and beverage workers in restaurants and bakeries don’t have union representation. And that’s especially true within the artisanal and farm-to-table movement, in which Tartine is a major player.

Tika Hall, a server at Tartine’s original location near San Francisco’s Dolores Park, told VICE that many of her coworkers make close to minimum wage and are barely scraping by. “I’m 36 years old and I don’t see a future where I live alone,” she said, adding that some coworkers—especially those with children—are living even more precariously. She doesn’t just want a raise for herself; she wants to see everyone benefit.

Though some will argue, “it’s a cafe job, it’s not a 200K salary career,” Matthew Torres, a former barista of Tartine Manufactory and now working at the companies Berkeley location was drawn into the company’s ethos and mission—a story he wholeheartedly supported like it was his own. “When I started, there was more of a culture that things were possible,” he said. It seemed like you could grow with the company. But after being kept at minimum wage for a couple of years, Torres grew disheartened when Tartine reduced its health insurance benefits for part-time employees.

The two iterated the same sentiment, “service jobs have been viewed as such a disposable career,” Hall said. “Especially in San Francisco, there’s such a division—it’s the super-rich people and the people who serve them.”

San Francisco could “be a place where this is more of a norm and be an example for the rest of the country,” said Emily Haddad, a barista at Tartine Manufactory. A majority vote will indefinitely send shock waves through the San Francisco Bay Area food scene. 

One barista, for instance, told the labor publication In These Times, “These bakers should be making at least $25 an hour, something that mirrors their experience and level of skill, and then you find out they’re making minimum wage and barely in the tip pool. Why?” But for Tartine’s managing partner, Bill Chait, “I wish there were bags of money coming out of Tartine every month so everyone could make $25 an hour. The truth is collective bargaining doesn’t necessarily lead to a $5 per hour increase.”

But Hall believes management’s efforts are backfiring. People are wondering how the company can argue it can’t afford to pay employees better when they seem to be spending so much fighting the union, she said, and more coworkers have expressed interest in voting “yes” since the pushback began. Plus, she’s been inspired by the community support from regulars and colleagues in the industry who are reaching out to ask how they can follow Tartine’s lead.

“I would be happy to set a new standard for what a great service industry job was,” she said. “We’re the ones making the bread. We’re the ones making and serving everything. We should get some recognition for that.”

Confusion around Tartine’s finances is another reason why workers want to unionize. If Tartine managers say they can’t afford to give raises yet charge $5 for a croissant, workers say they want to see the numbers.

Today’s vote will be historic whether yes or no.

// Photography by Erik Dungan; want to add something to this article—write in!

Today Is The Tartine Union Vote: The Moment of Truth for San Francisco’s Food Small Businesses
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