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Bakehouse Workers In Chicago Fight For Independent Union

Above photo: Female baker using peel to move baguettes from oven to cooling rack.

‘We’re looking for the means of production.’

Like their industry counterparts at Starbucks, Intelligentsia, and Colectivo Coffee, Spoke & Bird workers in Chicago are unionizing for better pay and working conditions, and to have a real say in how the business operates.

Despite the Biden administration’s decision to terminate the national Public Health Emergency Declaration on May 11, COVID-19 has continued to spread and mutate, leaving millions dead around the world and millions of others chronically ill, permanently disabled, and/or immunocompromised. The pandemic itself, and the botched responses to it by powerful state and market actors (including, and especially, the United States), have inflicted irreversible damage upon our societies, and that damage has been disproportionately felt by marginalized, poor, and working-class people. But the many injustices working people have had to endure during the pandemic, and the many sacrifices we have had to make, have also played a direct role in galvanizing the emerging wave of worker organizing and the renewed labor militancy we are currently witnessing. 

“I feel like a lot of people are feeling disillusioned,” said Ari Garcia-Chow, a barista at the Pilsen location of Spoke & Bird Bakehouse in Chicago, Illinois, who played an active role in her shop’s bid to unanimously form an independent union this year called Bakehouse United. “The pandemic, in particular, made it so that we had to reprioritize our lives… it allowed us to kind step back and see more clearly the relationship between the work that we do and the value that we produce.”

Like their industry counterparts and fellow Chicagoans at Starbucks, Intelligentsia, and Colectivo Coffee, Spoke & Bird workers saw unionization as the necessary mechanism for not only securing better pay and working conditions, but for having a real say in how the business operates. “We want a say in how day-to-day operations run… [to] update the menus and express creativity with [the] ingredients [that are] available here at the bakehouse,” Garcia-Chow told TRNN. From the beginning, the workers wanted to be the collective owners of the business. “We’re looking for the means of production,” said Chicago-based baker Jake Chappell. “I would say, at the heart of this union drive, we want autonomy. We want sovereignty. We want to choose our own schedules, our own wages, our own products and prices, we want to be in charge of the place that we make run anyway.”

When asked what workplace-specific issues pushed Spoke & Bird workers to organize, Garcia-Chow said, “it’s a combination of factors, like employees being passed up for raises and miscommunications with management and ownership.” Chappell specifically recalls when Derek Venhuizen, a well-respected pastry baker, was denied a raise on March 16 of this year. “Once we saw how Derek was struggling,” Chappell noted, “that was the big catalyst.”

Workers have also been inspired by other organizing efforts happening around the country and the rank-and-file militancy that has spread in recent years to industries across the board, from healthcare to Hollywood. Spoke & Bird employees have repeatedly vocalized their support for the numerous ongoing union campaigns happening around them, including efforts by worker-organizers affiliated with Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) and the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU). According to Garcia-Chow, with respect to organizing at the bakery, “there was a pro-union sentiment from the start.” One can feel that sentiment hanging in the air; as the Bakehouse crew told TRNN, they often indulge themselves in the musical stylings of legendary pro-labor folk singers like Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie, whose songs can often be heard playing throughout the Bakehouse.

Direct action gets the (baked) goods

Chappell has worked at the Bakehouse for the same length of time as his coworker and fellow baker Venhuizen, a year and a half. “We’re the two most tenured and experienced people in the building,” Chappell acknowledged. Chappell received a wage increase earlier this year; Venhuizen did not. When Venhuizen was denied a raise by management, it became a catalyst for workers across the store to engage in collective action—not only because the crew felt a deep solidarity with Venhuizen and believed he deserved the raise, but also because his situation was indicative of the squeeze other Spoke & Bird employees have been feeling. “Most of us are really struggling to get by,” Garcia-Chow told TRNN. “Derek is having a lot of difficulties financially, [and when] extra workload is added… he shows up, he does the work, he produces that value for the company. But then the compensation gets pushed back. Excuses come. And so it’s like, we’re on the same page about that.”

According to the workers I spoke to, every employee in the Bakehouse unanimously agreed that Venhuizen deserved a raise, as well as back pay equal to the amount that Chappell had received after his raise was approved on March 16.

Although workers had reportedly spoken with management about workplace-related issues numerous times in the past, they claim that their managers had failed to communicate to the owners of the bakery the workers’ latest grievances, concerns, and proposed solutions. After trying multiple times to appeal to the owners and managers and receiving little to no response, the workers were at their wits’ end, and they began exploring and discussing viable strategies for taking action at work to ensure their demands were met. Out of these covert meetings, recalled Garcia-Chow, workers developed an escalation plan “to show solidarity and demonstrate to ownership that we were united in this.”

At noon on Friday, May 26, the entire Bakehouse staff coordinated an “email zap” to flood the inbox of bakeshop owner Scott Golas. This was a form of concerted collective action: with each worker sending an email to Golas at the same time, none could be singled out and reprimanded. Emma, another pastry baker at Spoke & Bird, gave TRNN permission to share a screenshot of the email she sent to Golas on behalf of her coworker Venhuizen:

The workers’ coordinated action worked, prompting Golas to immediately set up a meeting with Venhuizen. As Venhuizen himself confirmed, during their in-person meeting, Golas promised to meet Venhuizen’s demands for a raise and back pay. A week later, Venhuizen received an email directly from the owners of the Bakehouse confirming that he would be receiving a 10% raise, plus back pay extending to March 16. This well-coordinated and successful action provided the Bakehouse employees with a concrete example of collective worker power and what they could accomplish together, and it would become a milestone victory that laid the foundation for what was to come.

Nuts and bolts

Like Amazon workers on Staten Island and Trader Joe’s workers across the country, Spoke & Bird workers are also advancing the trend of workers foregoing representation from established unions in order to build their own independent unions. “I think independent unions have more flexibility in how they can react, how they can plan and how they can move,” Chappell told TRNN.  And for those workers who feel an independent union is right for them, while it is by no means an easy feat, the very process of building a union from scratch leaves a deep imprint on all involved. “I think the difference is when people go from being pro-union to actively building and participating in a union,” Chappell added. “There’s a jump that people make.”

Without any formal knowledge of how to properly file to form a union, the Bakehouse workers were assigned a representative from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), who provided guidance and helped them effectively navigate the process. When all was said and done, these bakers took the cake:  Each and every employee signed a union authorization card for Bakehouse United. “You can print that it’s unanimous. Everyone’s really proud of that,” Chappell gleefully told me after their big win. The NLRB has certified Bakehouse United as representing the workers on July 31, by holding a formal election the same day. Following certification the owners of the business are required to bargain in good faith.

Emboldened by their successful union drive, Bakehouse workers are ready to wield their collective power in and outside their workplace. For instance, they have plans to use their leverage and collective power to pressure the owners into implementing the terms of newly-proposed legislation in Illinois which would drastically improve labor standards with respect to sick leave. Their plan is to lead by example: first, by merging their store’s current paid sick leave policy with their paid time off policy, effectively giving all workers at the Bakehouse more total hours of paid time off and more flexibility to use those hours when they need to. After securing this policy change within the store, the workers will then work to educate all employees on how to navigate the new policy, then they plan to put pressure on other establishments to follow suit.

When it comes to having a say in their workplace, these bakers and baristas aren’t just looking for a piece—they want the whole pie.

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