Union-Busting Bread?

by BEN SCHREINER

If you live here in the Pacific Northwest, chances are that you’ve tried Dave’s Killer Bread, a popular brand of organic wholegrain breads.  The unique story behind the bread is also well known in these parts.  For printed on each bread bag is the personal saga of founder Dave Dahl.  And Dave, we learn from each loaf, is no less than a former con who after spending 15 years in the clink, transformed his life, returned to the family bread business, and was born again as the baker behind Dave’s Killer Bread.

This personal tale of redemption, coupled with the bread’s great taste and the fact that nearly 30% of Dave’s employees are also felons, has helped propel the company to dramatic success.  In fact, since its initial launch in 2005, Nature Bake (the Dahl family bakery responsibly for first introducing Dave’s) has gone from employing 30 workers in its Oregon bakery, to nearly 260.  And today, Dave’s can be found not only in supermarkets in Oregon, but also Washington, California, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Nevada.

Unsurprisingly, Dave’s swift rise has elicited widespread admiration.  The local media has universally fawned over the company, and no less than the New York Times has written glowingly of what it deemed the “best bread to buy in the supermarket.”  In 2011, Dave’s was even named an Oregon Ethics in Business recipient.

But this well-crafted wholesome imagine of a socially responsible company—as so often happens with organic foods in general—masks a troubling labor record.

In fact, according to a report published this week in the Northwest Labor Press (worth reading in its entirety), Dave’s has been aggressively fighting a mounting unionization drive at its Milwaukee, Oregon bakery.

Driven by growing disillusionment over management favoritism and ever-shifting workplace rules and pay practices, workers at the Milwaukee bakery turned to Bakers Local 114 in late 2011.  In response to the worker outreach, the union approached the company about the possibility of commencing a “card check” unionization process (a process which entails workers signing union authorization cards in lieu of a secret ballot election run by the National Labor Relations Board).  The company, however, issued a swift rebuke to the union’s proposal.  And since, Dave’s has been systematically firing union supporters on trumped up charges.  As the Labor Press reports, “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.”

And indicative of a concerted effort to crush the unionization campaign, those having borne the brunt of these layoffs, the Labor Press notes, were “the squeaky wheels — the assertive ones who spoke up or complained.”

What is particularly troubling about the Labor Press story is the fact that part of the allure of Dave’s Killer Bread (aside from its quality) is that by purchasing it, one gets the satisfaction of contributing to a greater good.  After all, every loaf helps support a second chance for an ex-con.  Thus, to hear of the company cracking down on these very worker, who are likely to struggle finding alternative employment, ought to be especially disturbing.

Dave Dahl, in an email exchange with this writer on Thursday, was quick to label the allegations in the Labor Press report to be “not factual.”  He went on to state that, “We respect our employee’s rights to unionize, and we have told our employees this directly.  Should our employee base wish to unionize, there is nothing standing in their way.”   Such claims, however, are not particularly reassuring.

Indeed, for as the Labor Press reported, the national anti-union law firm Fisher & Phillips has already represented the company in at least one labor dispute.  Of course, such firms are notorious for coaching their clients to preach the great democratic benefits of the secret ballot election, while tirelessly working the flawed National Labor Relations Board certification process to subvert workers’ democratic rights.  It’s all appears a ploy pulled right out of any standard union busting playbook.

What all fans of Dave’s Killer Bread ought to keep in mind then, as long as the company continues to resist unionization at its Oregon bakery, is that no bread is too good to overlook union busting.

Ben Schreiner is a freelance writer living in Oregon.  He may be reached at bnschreiner@gmail.com.

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