Every Friday afternoon, dozens of workers in green shirts gather outside the bustling entrance to the Amy’s Kitchen factory in Santa Rosa.
Their chant — “Fuera union!” (get out, union!) — rings out across the parking lot as hundreds of employees begin and end their shifts at the food production plant.
The weekly anti-union rallies are an outward sign of tensions inside the factory, a longtime employer of more than 600 area workers, many of whom are immigrant women.
Inside the plant, company-paid labor management consultants spend time on the production line and in break rooms, speaking to workers, pulling groups of people into meetings and training managers.
Their goal, pro-union workers say, is to scare their colleagues away from the organizing through dishonest portrayals of how unions work.
Recently, aggressive anti-union tactics have been employed by liberal-facing companies like REI and Starbucks, said Jane McAlevey, a union organizer, author and senior policy fellow at UC Berkeley.
Pro-union employees say they believe that’s what’s happening at Amy’s.
“What they are doing is dividing us (workers),” said Maria Guadalupe Sanchez, a 17-year veteran of the plant. “It’s not the union, it’s them,” she said about the company-paid consultants.
Amy’s position is that the company doesn’t want its employees to unionize. But executives say they are only trying to inform their workforce, not sway their decision.
“We are very supportive of our employee’s right to choose,” company spokesman Paul Schiefer said during a tour of the well-oiled 100,000-square-foot factory. Company officials offered the tour after The Press Democrat inquired about the labor consultants.
“What we’re hearing is that (unionizing) isn’t what our employees really want, and so we have to support both sides of that sentiment,” Schiefer said. “All that we’re doing is making sure our employees are informed about what’s going on.”
But workers, union-leaders and experts call the consultants “union busters,” and say their job is to travel the country persuading workers against forming a union. If Amy’s executives wanted to respect workers’ right to choose, they wouldn’t have hired the consultants, said organizers with the Teamsters Local 665, the union seeking to represent plant workers.
According to LaborLab, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that claims to watchdog “the union-busting industry,” employers spend as much as $300 million a year on lawyers and consultants to counter union organizing.
Heated union fight
In recent news stories and a Cal/OSHA complaint, Amy’s workers questioned conditions on the production lines churning out prepared organic dishes. In the wake of those claims, Amy’s executives describe the weekly rallies as welcome worker support and pushback against a union they see as aiming to tarnish the brand.
“There is a negative information campaign that the union is pushing on certain topics that we have really taken seriously,” Schiefer said.
“We’re here because we want to support the company,” line worker Tere Paniagua said at a Feb. 4 rally. “We’re fine without the union.”
But the employees who want to engage in collective bargaining say the rallies are designed to intimidate them.
“A lot of workers are scared of those others in the green shirts who might run and go tell the managers whose side they’re on,” worker Maria Aguilar told The Press Democrat the same day.
Amy’s management says they have nothing to do with the rallies but will not interfere with workers who want to express their support.
According to interviews with company officials and federal filings reviewed by The Press Democrat, Amy’s executives hired consultants after managers learned of union activity in September. Consultants have also been contracted to work at Amy’s Kitchen production center in San Jose.
Tensions within the Santa Rosa plant only became public last month. The anti-union rallies started Jan. 28, two days after a pro-union protest outside Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park.