Harassment, injury claims spurred union at Portland bakery
Mishandling of sexual harassment complaints and fears of repetitive motion injuries ignited a unionization effort at a Portland bakery, workers' reps say.
After first talks of organizing began this summer, a majority of the 44 bread makers and dishwashers at Grand Central Bakery's Portland production facility voted to unionize with an affiliate of the AFL-CIO late last year.
The Tribune interviewed several sources within the union, who asked for anonymity after reports emerged in the NW Labor Press that a long-time supervisor had resigned, reportedly because he had been asked to target pro-union workers and write them up for minor infractions.
The company denies that happened.
Management originally declined to address other specifics at the facility, but said it always prioritizes workplace safety and acts on all incidents of "inappropriate conduct."
"There have been allegations that we don't respond when concerns are brought to our attention in any of these areas, and that's incorrect," CEO Claire Randall said in a phone interview. "We put the consideration of our employees into every decision that we make, and we have a track record to prove it."
But union organizers questioned the company's response to multiple incidents, saying that an employee was reassigned to a different shift after she reported sexual harassment by a coworker — and has more recently been retaliated against by a supervisor.
And while organizers say the company promised an independent investigation, the workers say they've only seen evidence that the inquiry was conducted by an in-house lawyer.
Grand Central Bakery disputes this narrative and says a "thorough and appropriate" workplace investigation was conducted by an "outside independent investigator," not the company lawyer. Employees described the situation differently.
"Right now, it's like it's the Wild West," one employee said. "They do whatever they want, and they don't have to explain themselves to anyone."
"Why have there been at least three women who have had to ask this (employee) to stop touching them, and he's still doing his thing?" another asked.
In a message sent to the Tribune after initial online publication of this article, a spokeswoman for the bakery said the accused employee was put on leave during the investigation and "no longer works" for the company.
"Our workplace is guided by best practices around HR and worker safety and is anything but 'the Wild West,'" said the spokeswoman, Leslie Cole. "We do not tolerate any kind of retaliation. Any claims that our management retaliated or intends to retaliate against employees who support union organizing are simply untrue."
Another grievance involves the 500 to 800 pound batches of bread pre-ferment, known as poolish, that are regularly prepared by workers. They say it's a laborious task to scoop the semi-liquid out of a large mixing bowl into smaller buckets. Work stations aren't set up to pour out the starter substance, according to both employees and managers.
"It's back-straining," one worker said. "It's all bending at the waist."
"There totally are better ways to do it," one said.
Randall — a former sales and cafe manager who joined the company when it first expanded into Portland in 1993 — said Grand Central Bakery uses "thoughtful mechanization" in both of its production facilities. The CEO said the company is always looking to improve, but stresses that the current working environment is safe.
"We're always looking to how we can maintain the artisan character of our pastries and bread, but also a better process for our bakers," she said.
Grand Central Bakery Product Director Laura Ohm said the company's hiring ads list the physical requirements of the job, including the ability to lift 50-pound bags. She said it's impossible to mechanize certain aspects of artisan baking, as the equipment for sale is attuned to the needs of industrial bakers — like Franz Family Bakeries — which don't use fermentation in their recipes.
"It's hard, physical work that is very rewarding in a lot of ways," Ohm said of work at Grand Central Bakery. "You're on your feet 100% of the day, and there are repetitive tasks."
After the vote
The union's allegations hardly harmonize with public perceptions of Grand Central Bakery, which has staked its reputation as a certified do-gooder by becoming a B Corporation.
The B Corp label signals to consumers that a company acts with sustainability, transparency and moral responsibility — not just the bottom line — in mind. At least, if the nonprofit, non-governmental certificate works as intended.
In its most recent B Corp audit, Grand Central Bakery scored a 91.5 on the B Corp scale, with 8.1 points for "wages and compensation," and 0.9 points for "occupational health & safety."
B Corp says the average non-certified business would score 50.9 on the scale, with higher scores indicating a better business.
Grand Central's Portland production facility, 2249 N.W. York St., churns out loaves of fresh bread for the privately owned company's Portland properties, as well as a few local grocery stores and restaurants.
On Dec. 12, workers there voted 29-9 to unionize with Bakers, Confectioners, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 114. Another six employees did not participate in the secret ballot overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The union does not cover Grand Central Bakery's chain of cafes, its pastry kitchen, or the Seattle production facility.
With no contract in place so far, unionists say they will push for a transparent sexual harassment adjudication process, more staffing for difficult jobs in the mixing room, overtime pay after 7.5 hours — and higher wages.
The current pay scale begins at roughly $16.25 per hour, topping out at around $21.50 for experienced shift leads.
According to Northwest Labor Press, employees at Franz earn $25 per hour. Randall, the CEO, said she doesn't think those wages apply to every job description, and said it isn't a fair comparison due to differences in operations and scale.
Cole, the company spokeswoman, says Franz' starting wage is $16.14 per hour, less than Grand Central Bakery's starting wage of $16.25 per hour. "This puts the range of pay at this highly mechanized bakery well in line with ours," she said.
Labor reps, at least, are excited for what's to come.
As one worker put it: "It's pretty damn exciting to be coming into our own power and finally be able to support each other and hear our own voice."
New, printed notices in English and EspaÃ±ol going up in the break room to inform workers of their right to refuse to attend captive audience meetings pic.twitter.com/2kYPISJX0c— Grand Central Bakers Union (@GCB_Union) December 8, 2019
This article has been updated.
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