By Don McIntosh
When higher-ups learned Nov. 22 that workers at Grand Central Baking’s Northwest Portland wholesale bakery wanted a union, it took them completely by surprise. They didn’t take it well. In meetings that workers were directed to attend on the clock, CEO Claire Randall and other managers tried to talk them out of it. They failed: On Dec. 12, workers voted 29-to-9 to join Bakers Local 114.
Four days later, Pete Uding—swing-shift production manager there—gave two weeks’ notice of resignation. Uding, 31, had been promoted four times in the less than four years he’d worked for Grand Central, and spent the last two years in management at the bakery. As a manager, he wasn’t part of the union drive. But Uding told the Labor Press that immediately after a Dec. 6 anti-union meeting at which workers were invited to speak without fear of retaliation, he was called into a meeting with his boss and an executive two levels above him, Grand Central product director Laura Ohm. Uding says Ohm and one other manager fumed over what pro-union workers said, and discussed plans to write up specific individuals who were outspoken union supporters—to lay the ground for terminating them.
“It honestly made me sick to my stomach,” Uding said.
Ohm wasn’t just blowing off steam: At subsequent meetings Uding says he was again directed to find things to write those specific employees up for. The phrase “document to term” was used, as in, document in order to terminate. Uding says these weren’t employees who’d had any kind of performance issues.
On Dec. 16, Uding met with CEO Randall and told her what he was being asked to do. When she denied that was happening, and didn’t back him up in any way, he gave notice, which she asked him to put in writing then and there. Uding had no other job lined up, and his wife still works for the company.
“I do not feel comfortable working for them any more, doing the things that they’re directing me to do,” Uding said.
Reached by phone, National Labor Relations Board regional director Ron Hooks wasn’t sure if ordering managers to retaliate against union supporters is itself a violation of federal labor law, but if a manager acts on it—and retaliates against workers for union support—that most certainly would be.
The day after Uding gave notice, his manager told him in a voicemail not to come back to work; his final check would be issued Dec. 30. In the weeks since, Uding says more than a dozen of his former employees have called or texted sympathy and thanks.
Bargaining a first union contract has not yet begun.
Part Two: The Company Denial
The Labor Press was unable to reach Grand Central directly for a response to the allegations, but Amy Brown, an outside public relations professional who works for the company, emailed a statement provided by Grand Central Bakery:
Laura Ohm did not make the statements attributed to her. In fact, she went out of her way during conversations with Mr. Uding to reinforce that there should be no retaliation whatsoever against any person speaking up at the meetings regarding unionization. Mr. Uding submitted his resignation without any pressure from management to do so. When he submitted his notice, he was told that it was completely his choice and he did not need to resign. He did so anyway.
So, there you have it, right? It’s a “he said, she said,” and the accounts flatly contradict each other. You, the reader, get to decide what you think. But first you deserve to have a few more relevant facts.
So-called personnel disputes are notoriously tricky turf for journalists. I can’t tell you the number of calls I have gotten at the Labor Press over the years from employees who were wronged at work and want some justice. I offer sympathy, give them contact information for their union, if they have one, and refer them to government agencies that might help. But I almost never write about their cases, because the accusations are almost invariably denied by their employer, and proving wrongdoing without subpoena power is a very difficult thing to do.
So why are we publishing in this case? Because I felt we’d been given credible evidence that a violation of federal labor law was about to occur — that workers who bravely stood up for their right to unionize had secretly been targeted for unlawful retribution and termination by their employer. We hoped that going public with the allegation might restrain such an employer from following through.
And why did I think the evidence was credible?
- This is not a case where someone calls the press hoping to settle a score with an ex-employer. Uding didn’t call me. I called him, after I learned of his resignation from a union supporter. When I reached Uding, he was open about what happened, and willing to be named in a story even though in the Google era that could affect his future job prospects. Uding didn’t make himself out to be a hero. He gave the impression of someone who felt relieved after having made a difficult decision he felt right about.
- I spoke with Uding on five separate occasions, going over details of his story again and again, entirely on the record, and not once did he change his story or contradict himself.
- Grand Central, by contrast, offers a single terse statement, a blanket denial, but won’t make Ohm or any other manager available for any kind of questioning.
- Though it’s illegal, employers all-too-frequently target union supporters for discipline. According to a study released Dec. 11 by the Economic Policy Institute, somewhere between a fifth and a third of union representation elections involve a charge that a worker was illegally fired for union activity. But employers almost never admit to that illegal motive. Instead they’ll say a worker was fired for failing to write up a machine maintenance report, or leaving work to go out to their car while on a paid break, or returning to work without a doctor’s note after three days out sick. In other words, they closely monitor known union supporters, document the inevitable slip-up, and then use that as a pretext for discipline. And they often get away with it, because when the resultant union complaint goes to the National Labor Relations Board, managers almost never put their livelihoods at risk by breaking the code of silence.
- Grand Central itself has a record: It agreed to reinstate a cafe worker with back pay in 2013 in order to settle a National Labor Relations Board case in which the company was accused of firing the worker for complaining about safety, wages, and staffing on behalf of co-workers.
- The clincher, for me, is that Uding gave up a $55,000-a-year management job at Grand Central, without any other job lined up. The fact that he quit means he can’t collect unemployment insurance while he’s out of work. His wife still works for the company; that’s gotta be awkward. And the two have a six-year-old daughter to support. The company’s spokesperson offered up unsolicited that it was Uding’s choice to resign. He never told me otherwise. The question is just why he resigned. I have no reason to doubt his explanation — moral revulsion. He was being told to target workers who worked under him for illegal discipline because they’d spoken up for the union, and he could neither carry out that order nor continue in good conscience to work for such a company.
So, like I said. It’s a “he said, she said.” And you get to decide.
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