By Don McIntosh, Associate editor
On Monday, Jan. 11, two dozen workers at Portland Specialty Baking surprised company president Josh Richardson in his office, announced that they and their co-workers intend to form a union, and asked him to respect their choice. By the end of the week, they had their answer: The company lawyered up, hired a union-busting consultant, and began a cookie-cutter anti-union campaign.
The company employs 180 production workers at its Gresham industrial bakery making pretzels, cakes, bagels, and muffins for Starbucks, Franz, Safeway, Costco and Winco. It’s an overwhelmingly immigrant workforce, with pay hovering around $10 an hour.
Workers had been meeting with union organizers for up to eight months, yet not a whisper of that ever reached management’s ears. If that doesn’t show how little the company knows its workforce, this does: It put out anti-union fliers in English, despite the fact that as many as 12 languages are spoken on the shop floor. [By contrast, the union campaign has spent nearly $20,000 on interpreters, and puts out its written messages in five languages.]
“We believe having a union at Portland Specialty Baking would change our culture, and not in a good way,” one company flier says. “Instead of all working together, it could turn into ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ and we don’t want that to happen.”
Other elements of the company’s messaging follow the usual formula: Try to scare workers with what-ifs, plead with workers to give the company another chance to make things better without a union, and emphasize union dues, while ignoring the union wages that might make those dues a bargain.
By week two, management was holding mandatory-attendance anti-union group meetings almost daily before each shift, and summoning workers one by one to meet with managers during the work day.
The union campaign is led by organizers dispatched by the national and state AFL-CIO. Bakers Local 114, the union the workers want to join, represents workers at other industrial bakeries in the area. Its members at Franz, Safeway, Bimbo/ Oroweat, and Kroger are paid wages more than twice what workers at Portland Specialty Baking make.
Over 100 Portland Specialty Baking workers have signed union cards, and three dozen of them turned out to a high-spirited Jan. 16 union organizing meeting. At the meeting, workers laid out why they want a union: better treatment, better equipment, better scheduling practices, and better pay and benefits.
Safety is also a major issue. Many workers on the bagel baking line have permanent scars from burns, and at least three workers were significantly injured by a bagel dough cutting machine before the company installed an emergency stop device. Last March, Oregon OSHA fined the company $28,125 for willfully violating the law after a worker’s hand was crushed in that machine. The agency found that despite a pattern of injuries, the employer continued to ignore safety rules and failed to provide adequate safety training.
Since the company refused to voluntarily recognize the union, the campaign asked the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a union election. The agency set a vote for Feb. 4.
Editor’s Note: In 2010, the Gresham City Council granted the company a five-year tax abatement when the company upgraded its production line with a $1.2 million investment. Portland Specialty Baking saved about $76,000 in property taxes, and paid the city $6,700 in community service fees.
2/5/16 UPDATE: The vote was 123 no to 38 yes. That’s despite 102 workers having signed union authorization cards as of just a few weeks ago. The vote comes after two weeks of non-stop campaigning by management. A more detailed story will follow.