By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
The story of Dave’s Killer Bread is well-known in Oregon. Printed on every bread bag, it’s a tale of redemption. Fresh out of prison and looking back on a 20-year criminal history, ex-con Dave Dahl is given a second chance by his brother, Glenn Dahl. Born again as a baker in the bread business their father founded, Dave develops organic bread recipes with cheeky names like “Good Seed” and “Blues Bread,” and hawks them at Portland farmers markets under the slogan, “Just Say No to bread on drugs!”
People pay $5 a loaf not just because Dave’s is great bread, but because they have good will toward the brand founder and his story.
But for a growing roster of ex-employees, that feel-good narrative may be getting a little stale. Workers interviewed for this story say the company’s rapid expansion is changing the character of what once felt like a family-run business. Last June, the company hired a professional manager, and began cleaning house at the Milwaukie, Oregon, bakery. Dozens of workers — many of them ex-cons given their own second chances by Dave Dahl — were terminated. Those who remained were afraid for their jobs, and one of them made contact with Bakers Local 114, which represents workers at competing bakeries like Franz and Kroger.
Dave’s pays above average for a nonunion bakery, says Local 114 Secretary-Treasurer Terry Lansing, but still at least $3 per hour less than union workers at competing bakeries. And the union bakers have greater job security and better benefits.
As the wave of firings got under way at Dave’s, several workers talked about calling the union, but it was Dan Turner who showed up at Local 114’s office on Nov. 12, telling Lansing it was time for the union to get involved.
Turner, 48, is also an ex-con, and heard about Dave’s from Jacob Adams, a friend from prison. In fact, about a third of the company’s 260 employees are felons. Employing ex-offenders — and buying grain from local farmers — has made Dave’s Killer Bread a favorite of local politicians and business groups.
The company may employ ex-offenders for altruistic reasons, but there are also sweeteners. A federal tax credit reimburses companies for up to 40 percent of the wages of felons hired within a year of their release — up to $2,400 per hire.
Hired in July 2010 to bag bread at $10 an hour, Turner saw a company in the grip of growing pains. NatureBake, the company Dave’s late father founded, had about 30 employees when Dave joined it in 2004. But after the Dave’s Killer Bread brand debuted at the Portland Farmers Market in August 2005, the company began rising like fast-acting yeast. By April 2010, it had over 120 employees. [Today it has over 260.]
Turner, one month on the job, contacted Local 114 to see if the union might bring order to what he saw as chaos in pay policies and workplace rules. But it didn’t seem to Lansing at that time that worker union support was broad enough to succeed, given what he knew about the company.
Past is prelude
Back in 2006, NatureBake had been located just 14 blocks from the union’s Northeast Portland office. Local 114 president Georgene Barragan got a job there, with the intent of spreading the union gospel and furthering its mission of organizing all bakery workers. But it was not to be. On her first day on the job, an engineer at NatureBake who used to work at a union bakery recognized her and went up to give her a hug. Barragan’s cover was blown, and Glenn fired her on the spot.
Then in June 2008, an unemployed baker who formerly worked at the unionized Kroger bakery went to apply for a job at Dave’s Killer Bread, wearing a Kroger jacket. Glenn ascertained that he’d been a union member, asked him if he knew Georgene Barragan, and ordered him off the property. This time, Local 114 filed an unfair labor practice charge: It’s illegal to discriminate against an applicant because of current or former union affiliation. Local 114 won the case when the company agreed to post a notice for 60 days and offered the worker a job. But the worker opted not to work where he felt he was unwanted.
So when Turner first contacted him, Lansing thought it’d be tough to unionize Dave’s.
But Turner stayed on at the company, and worked his way into a $17-an-hour job driving a bread truck. When an off-the-job injury sidelined him temporarily, the company gave him a light-duty job in the office. He became a trusted employee, and developed a rapport with the owners. He was given keys to the office and a company gas card, and sometimes was given a company credit card.
But by the fall of 2011, Turner says worsening conditions at the company drove him to seek out the union again. Employees were given a $2-an-hour raise, but lost their customary bonuses in the bargain. Pay raises were based on “reviews,” but whether, how, and when reviews occurred were up to the manager’s discretion, and workers would wait months for promised reviews. New employees would sometimes come in at higher pay rates than experienced employees, and the seeming randomness of the pay system contributed to an impression of management favoritism.
At the company — which won the 2011 Oregon Ethics in Business Award for its “dedication to hiring and mentoring ex-convicts,” and “constant focus on employee well-being”— employee rules were frequently changed, and workers were disciplined under a new “point system” which they didn’t understand or have an opportunity to appeal. New hires now were provided by a temp agency, All Star Labor & Staffing, and didn’t become employees of Dave’s for 90 days. And now employees were being fired in growing numbers. They needed help, Turner told Lansing.
Lansing interviewed several fired workers and says he found a pattern: It was the squeaky wheels — the assertive ones who spoke up or complained — who were being fired, for what seemed to him like trivial or manufactured infractions.
Mixing room worker Alex Martinez — who’d been a union member at Union Pacific railroad and in Iron Workers Local 29 — complained about management favoritism, an inflexible time clock point system, and having to wait for reviews to get a raise. He told co-workers it would not be like that if they had a union. Then managers started scrutinizing his breaks. He was fired Sept. 19 when car trouble made him 20 minutes late, despite having called in about it.
Lead mixer Jacob Adams — who’d fallen in love with the company after serving time for burglary and bank robbery — grew disillusioned by fall 2011, and complained to managers that his crew members weren’t getting their reviews. A week later, he was accused of uttering a racial epithet and throwing a mixing bowl, both of which he denies.
Lansing offered to represent Adams in pursuing an unemployment claim.
In Oregon, workers who quit or are fired for just cause don’t normally qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, but if a state adjudicator finds that there were extenuating circumstances or they were fired through no fault of their own, they may qualify. Employers sometimes contest the claim because they feel a worker was justly fired and doesn’t deserve benefits; they also have an economic incentive to oppose it, because unemployment insurance is “experience rated,” meaning employers who terminate a lot of employees pay a higher premium. When an unemployment claim is contested, the determination is made by an administrative law judge, usually after a hearing conducted by telephone.
When Lansing joined in the Jan. 9 phone hearing for Jacob Adams, it took the company by surprise; Glenn Dahl joined the call.
The next time Lansing took part in such a hearing, for fired worker Jarrell Bronson, Dave’s Killer Bread was represented by an attorney from the nationally-known employer-side labor law firm Fisher & Phillips.
Both workers were awarded unemployment benefits.
But fear was thick at Dave’s Killer Bread among workers, Lansing says, and firings continued: An informal count by current and ex-employees at one union meeting produced the names of 23 workers who’d been fired since the summer — roughly one in 10 people employed at Dave’s Killer Bread.
Coming out as a union supporter
In February, Lansing decided to pursue an unusual strategy. Normally, because employers tend to fight unionization, union organizing campaigns operate clandestinely at first, gathering a critical mass of worker support while trying to avoid the attention (and ire) of management. But at Dave’s, workers were being fired at such a rate that Lansing felt something had to be done to protect union supporters. It’s illegal for an employer to fire a worker for aiding a union campaign, but Lansing has learned the hard way that it happens quite often. Employers who don’t want a union will fire union supporters using some other reason as a pretext, and then escape legal repercussions by telling the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) they didn’t know those workers were union supporters. If workers can’t prove managers knew they were union supporters, they lose their cases — and their right to back pay and reinstatement.
So Lansing decided to make it impossible for Dave’s Killer Bread to deny that it knew. He began writing letters to Glenn Dahl, identifying specific workers as union supporters.
Dan Turner was the first to be identified, in a Feb. 2 letter.
The following day, Lansing went to the NLRB and filed two charges, alleging that Dave’s Killer Bread violated federal labor law both when it installed cameras in the lunchroom and smoking area, and when it fired employees Jacob Adams and Teresa Chaney. The charge was not that Dave’s fired the workers for union activity, but for speaking out, and sticking up for co-workers — which are also protected rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
On Feb. 7, Lansing wrote to Glenn Dahl inviting him to discuss the possibility of card-check union recognition, a less adversarial method of unionizing, in which workers sign union cards if they want to join, and the employer recognizes the union if a majority sign the cards. Dahl declined the offer by letter the following day. [See Lansing’s reply to that here.]
More NLRB charges followed. Three of the charges alleged unlawful terminations, and another called out the company for prohibiting employees from talking about Local 114 while at work, and for new rules prohibiting employees from posting items on the employee bulletin board without prior authorization — after some workers posted union business cards on the board.
Several days after Turner was outed as a union supporter, he was asked to turn in his office keys. In the weeks that followed, he began to feel like he had a target on his back, and he says he was written up for nitpicky infractions.
But Glenn Dahl had said he respected his employees’ right to a union, and Turner took him at his word. On Feb. 24, Turner went to meet with Dahl. Glenn Dahl owns a 51 percent share of the privately-held business NatureBake, which he bought from his father in 1988; Glenn’s son Shobi and his brother Dave own the remainder. NatureBake also does business as Dave’s Killer Bread.
“You should have talked to me before you went to the union,” Turner says Glenn Dahl told him. Turner told Glenn his reasons for supporting the union. Glenn asked Turner to name three things he could improve about the business, and to give him another chance, just as Turner had been given a chance. Turner’s suggestion: Glenn could let the union come into the plant for one day to talk to workers.
Five days after the meeting with Glenn Dahl, Turner was ordered to report to the office. There, his manager, a human resources employee, and Shobi Dahl confronted him, accusing him of stealing something off a loading dock at Unified Grocers. Turner says he was never told what it was he was alleged to have stolen. But he was suspended without pay, pending investigation. He learned he was fired on March 7.
Clackamas County Sheriff’s office has no recent report of theft at that location, nor were charges filed with the police.
After he was fired, Turner got a letter saying that his health benefits had been terminated effective the day he was suspended.
Turner says it’s easy to try to pin such accusations on a felon, but insists he’s innocent.
“I had a lot to lose,” he tells the Labor Press. Since his release from federal prison in 2006, he’s been rebuilding his life. A former drug addict, he’s been attending Clark College studying to become a drug and alcohol counselor. He married Amanda Thompson, and they bought a house last year. She works for the City of Vancouver, where she’s a member of AFSCME, and a former union steward with Office and Professional Employees Local 11. At one point, Turner recalls, she worried that he’d lose his job if he got active in a union campaign.
“I really believed they needed a union at Dave’s,” Turner tells the Labor Press. “They still do.”
The company’s response
“We know that the Bakery Confectionery Tobacco and Grain Millers would like to form a union at NatureBake and Dave’s Killer Bread to represent some of our employees, and we respect our employees’ rights to unionize,” says Shobi Dahl.
Dahl wouldn’t say, however, whether the company is discouraging workers from unionizing or whether it intends to employ union avoidance consultants. Nor would he divulge the company’s disciplinary and pay policies, or comment on specifics about the fired employees. A company media policy forbids employees to talk to reporters without authorization, and Dahl declined to make any employees available for interview with authorization.
He said he was unaware if the company is receiving tax credits for hiring felons, but said employing them fits the company’s mission, which is to make the world a better place one loaf of bread at a time.
The NLRB is investigating seven charges against Dave’s Killer Bread.
Dave’s Killer Bread is sold in eight states, at retailers including Costco, WinCo Foods, New Seasons, Whole Foods, Safeway, and Fred Meyer.
[UPDATE 4/23/12: The company has written a response to this article, signed by owners Glenn, Dave, and Shobi Dahl. The response is viewable here.]