Accusations fly against celeb-loving organic bread company

While employees say Amy's Bread is threatening them to keep mum, owner says anti-union meetings are "very friendly"

Published December 19, 2013 5:30PM (EST)

Jesse Eisenberg, Megan Fox         (AP/Arthur Mola/Jordan Strauss)
Jesse Eisenberg, Megan Fox (AP/Arthur Mola/Jordan Strauss)

Employees of an artisanal bread company that touts its ethical credentials and celebrity shoppers alleged that their union effort was met with bare-knuckle scare tactics -- including warning workers that their organic loaves could go the way of the Twinkie. As Salon first reported last month, employees at Amy’s Bread’s Queens bakery produce loaves and pastries for Whole Foods and Zabar’s, and – according to an internal newsletter – celebrities including Megan Fox and Jesse Eisenberg. While the company publicly touts its “natural ingredients” and “loyal employees,” workers allege they’re working in pain for poor pay, while enduring ongoing disrespect.

“Instead of accepting our invitation and giving dialogue a shot,” employee-activist Luis Velesaca charged in an emailed statement, “the company has threatened and pressured us.”

“Basically, I told the staff what their rights are,” countered eponymous owner-founded Amy Scherber. “Like, they can, you know, both sides of – they have their rights to support a union, or to not support a union. They can do either thing.”

In a Nov. 25 march with allied activists, a group of employees went public with demands for better pay and benefits and respect for their right to organize with the labor group Brandworkers and the Industrial Workers of the World union. (Scherber said “Only 5 or 6” of her “over 150 employees” took part in the demonstration; Brandworkers told Salon “over a dozen” employees delivered a letter signed by 23 workers.) In an emailed statement, New York City Council member and Public Advocate-elect Letitia James said she was “deeply concerned to learn about the conditions at Amy’s Bread” and “I stand with Brandworkers” in its call for change.

But rather than agreeing to a meeting about those demands, Brandworkers charges that Amy’s Bread has sought to quash its organizing. Organizers cite a letter signed by Scherber and distributed to employees in June, while the union effort was still in its underground phase, warning that “In the recent past, strikes by this union put two very well known companies out of business, Hostess and Stella D’Oro. The employees of these companies blindly followed the union’s leadership, and as a result, their companies are no longer around.” (The union blamed by Hostess and Stella D’Oro was the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, not the IWW.)

After workers took their campaign public, Scherber responded in a series of in-person, on-the-clock meetings on the topic. Employee Luis Velesaca charged in an emailed statement that Scherber “warned us that our campaign activities would cause the company to shut down.” “She mentioned that it will harm the clients and the business aspect as well if we get involved or try to be more vocal in what we need,” employee Jose Quinones told Salon. Quinones, a night shift baker, said Scherber spoke for at least 45 minutes, using an employee as a Spanish translator, emphasizing that “Amy’s Bread is not a sweatshop,” and “basically saying [to] be wary of this organization, and that Amy’s Bread is a family, and we’re supposed to all stick together.”

Interviewed at the bakery this month (following a walking tour of the premises on which she explained that “the slow, cool rise gives you a nicer flavor”), Scherber acknowledged the letter and the meetings, but denied any intent to intimidate. Asked about the letter’s invocation of lost jobs at Hostess and Stella D’Oro, Scherber told Salon, “The message was that, you know, we don’t really know why you want to bring a union in, but these are some of the things that could happen if a union does come in.” Asked which of those things were possible at Amy’s, Scherber answered, “I’m not going to say.”

Asked if she had told employees in the on-the-clock meetings that the business would or could shut down if they unionized, Scherber answered, “Well, no. I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that. I said … It’s been a busy year, but it’s still not a great year in the economy, so, you know, we don’t have a whole -- you know, I don’t know.” She added, “I don’t know what a union would do … But I mean -- we’re not shutting down. I’m not – I didn’t say that. I just said that they -- you know, that the company, we need everyone’s support to stay strong, really. That’s it.”

Scherber said that employees who wanted to leave during the meetings would have been free to do so. Asked if workers had the opportunity to express pro-union sentiments there, she said, “We didn’t have a back-and-forth conversation at that time – it was just more of a presentation at that time.” Asked why she opted to communicate her message in person rather than through another letter, Scherber said, “I don’t think they all really understand English,” and added, “You know, to talk to the staff, you need to talk to them. I mean, you don’t just send them a memo or something. They’re not – they’re, like, people, you know? It’s a group of people out there. They’re – they want to talk to you.

“I don’t think it’s intimidating at all,” said Scherber. “It’s very friendly. It’s not intimidating.”

Scherber disputed several allegations employees had shared with Salon. Asked if overtime work had gone unpaid, she said, “I don’t think so,” and that “they have to work 40 hours – that’s the law – to go overtime, so maybe they don’t understand that.” Asked about an employee who said she experienced regular pain from her cleaning work, Scherber said, “Of course it concerns me,” but that “we have all the systems in place for that, so we just need to hear from an employee if they have a problem.”

As for a baker – whose name was withheld – who said he got burning eyes from smoke and frequent colds from going between a hot oven and a cold freezer without a jacket, Scherber said “that’s not a freezer” but a refrigerator, and that a jacket and goggles could be provided if he wanted them. The baker said that the absence of proof boxes for the bread to rise and the frequent turning off of the ventilation system for bread to rise led to smoke making his eyes burn; Scherber said proof boxes were “just not the way we make our bread” and that “we don’t want them to” turn the ventilation off. Scherber said organizers’ claims that a manager mocked workers for going to the bathroom, or for crying over getting fired, were “not true at all.”

The Amy’s Bread owner/founder told Salon her company paid “much more than minimum wage” to new employees, but that she wouldn’t share numbers “because it’s our own private business, and it’s not really appropriate to share.” As for the company’s health insurance plan, which workers alleged was unaffordable, Scherbers said she didn’t know what percentage of employees were enrolled. “I would love to be able to find cheaper health insurance …” she told Salon. “It’s not available to our size business, really, but we’re looking.”

Scherber said her concern about the Brandworkers and IWW organizing was that it “just stirs up everybody who is really happy doing what they do,” while “we try to provide something really nice for everybody.” She told Salon she was “more than happy to talk about everything” with employees, and “I don’t think we need an outside person to mediate it honestly.” (Unlike most union campaigns, the IWW effort is not seeking formal collective bargaining.) Asked why she believed union organizers were devoting attention to her company, Scherber answered, “I think it’s because we’re in Queens,” where “a separate free-standing business” can draw more notice and there’s “a lot of activity.” She noted “the plumbers union is near here.”

“I feel like she was just trying to, you know, nip this in the bud,” Quinones told Salon. “In a sense that it’s just gearing up to organize, and if enough people don’t sign up or are behind the cause, that it will probably die away.” He said he was spurred to organize in part over frustration at being “all over the place running around like a madman” to complete his tasks at work. “I really get stressed out.”

Velesaca alleged that management also “urged me several times as a member of the organizing committee to try to get my co-workers to stop associating with our ‘outside organizations’ Brandworkers and the IWW.” Asked about that allegation, Scherber answered, “I don’t know who that is, actually, either. I’m not sure who that would be. I mean, the managers, they know they have -- they just -- they can’t really do much. They just have to let it -- whatever will be will be, basically” on unionization.

Under federal labor law, it’s generally legal for companies to compel employees to attend anti-union meetings, and to make predictions regarding potential negative consequences from unionization, but not to make explicit threats, punish activists or ask workers about their union activity. But pro-labor advocates and academics have long argued the law leaves companies ample opportunities to intimidate employees while staying within the bounds of the law, and imposes little meaningful punishment when they go outside of them.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, a scholar of anti-union campaigns who directs labor research and education at Cornell, emailed that based on workers’ accounts, it appeared Amy’s Bread had committed “clear violations” of the National Labor Relations Act by issuing “direct threat of retaliation,” and “also made more veiled threats which involved misrepresenting the union as a threat to the workers’ job security.” She called statements that unionization could lead to business being shut down “both effective and common” in response to union campaigns, saying that while less than one in 20 plants where unions win after shutdown threats actually end up closing, “plant closing threats continue to have an adverse impact on union organizing success because every worker knows of a union company that closed or had mass layoffs.”

Quinones said that Amy’s Bread’s anti-union efforts hadn’t changed his mind about the union. “I’m still committed,” he told Salon, “because I feel things are still the same.” But Scherber maintained her company’s been misrepresented. “We just do our best, and I think that it’s not really fair to say there are dark secrets,” she told Salon. “We don’t have dark secrets here.”

By Josh Eidelson

MORE FROM Josh Eidelson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amy's Bread Brandworkers Iww Labor Organic Sustainable Union