Madison Sourdough union election shows reach of labor’s service sector surge
A Madison bakery that has long been a favorite institution in the city enters a new chapter this week when employees and the company sit down to bargain their first union contract.
Madison Sourdough is a locally owned, single-location business. It was founded nearly 30 years ago and has been under the current ownership for almost half that time. While emblematic of a surge in service industry unionizing, it stands apart in some ways as well.
At several hundred Starbucks Coffee stores across the U.S., including seven in Wisconsin, hundreds of employees have voted for union representation. Scores of workers at Colectivo Coffee’s 15 outlets in Wisconsin and Chicago are seeking a first union contract with that company.
By contrast, Madison Sourdough, beloved by many, is a bakery and cafe known for signature loaves and pastries and is a popular breakfast and lunch spot. Employees active in the union drive readily acknowledge it as a community fixture and say they don’t harbor ill will toward the owner, Andrew Hutchison.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” says Lolo Young, 25, who has worked elsewhere as a baker in a nonunion facility as well as in a grocery store where she was represented by the UFCW. “Andrew is probably the best boss I ever had.”
Bakery work is by its nature demanding, with some employees having to report hours before sunrise so that they’ll have fresh wares to sell when customers arrive when doors open. It’s work that employees speak of with a combination of fondness and resignation.
“It’s really hard work — it’s very physically demanding work at very odd hours, and when you don’t have a union in a shop like that, it really leaves you open to exploitation,” Young says. “Folks were unhappy and exhausted.”
But Young holds back from sharper criticism, saying that she hoped that, through public restraint, negotiations could be conducted more peacefully. “I think people have a lot of great relationships with management and want that to continue,” she says.
The organizing “was something that Lolo and I and a couple of other people talked about wanting to do,” said another employee, who asked not to be named out of concern she might face retaliation. “We believe that all workers should be unionized and have fair contracts.”
Union supporters say the Madison Sourdough campaign was also inspired by resurgent labor activism all around them, such as the Starbucks and Colectivo union drives. Broader economic conditions from wage inequality to retirement insecurity affecting workers of all ages are helping to drive those and other unionizing projects, Young says. “It gives people a lot of hope, I think.”
Brian Romanowich of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1473 says a group of Madison Sourdough employees contacted the union shortly after the Christmas holiday season. The UFCW represents employees at some major grocery chains in Wisconsin as well as in other industries.
One issue in the bakery department was long shifts, Romanowich says, and employees wanted to be part of a process that might address that concern and others.
“This was 99% worker driven,” Romanowich says of the organizing drive. “They were so engaged, every single one of them. They were pretty much steering the boat.”
In mid-February, a group of workers and Romanowich went to Hutchison. Well more than half of the employees had signed union authorization cards and hoped he might simply recognize the union, the union representative said.
“Our conversation with the owner was very cordial and professional,” Romanowich says. But Hutchison declined voluntary recognition, setting the stage for the union to file a formal petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
Madison Sourdough’s owners and the pro-union workers have very different perspectives on how the business reacted, particularly in the first few weeks after the petition was filed.
Romanowich says the employers’ response “wasn’t as aggressive a campaign as I’ve seen in the past.” Nevertheless, Young says that union supporters were disappointed when their voluntary recognition request was rejected, and she describes the owners’ response as an anti-union campaign.
But Emily Hutchison, who co-owns the business with her husband, rejects that characterization. Hutchison answered questions from the Wisconsin Examiner by email.
“Our only goal through this process was for all staff to have a voice in the decision whether or not to unionize, and for there to be open conversation about the advantages and disadvantages,” Emily Hutchison says.
“We organized one voluntary meeting for employees [with] no outside parties, where we offered everyone 5 minutes of uninterrupted time to share their thoughts and experiences, and offered to answer any questions staff had for us,” she adds. “That was the only meeting.”
Hutchison said their response was not one of opposition to a union.
“We never pursued a campaign against unionization because we were not necessarily against unionization — we only wanted to create space for all of our employees’ voices to be heard,” Hutchison says. “We replied to statements posted by union organizers, and during the forum Drew and I each took five minutes to share our thoughts and experiences just like all our staff were invited to do, but there was never a campaign against unionization.”
She calls the experience “an emotionally exhausting process, but we have always kept in mind the long-term goal of maintaining a positive culture here at the bakery.”
Union supporters, meanwhile, rallied backing from other Madison-area labor groups. “We’ve had just outstanding support from the community,” says Young.
The owners’ communications about the union vote largely faded in the last couple of weeks before the April 6 NLRB election. Workers voted 27-13 in favor of unionization.
Just as the employees have avoided personal attacks on Madison Sourdough management, Hutchison said the owners are not taking the vote to unionize personally.
“I don’t think anyone here is anti-Madison Sourdough,” she says. “I think they are pro-union. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Young says the employees are hopeful about the talks that start this week.
“Through this whole process management has talked about how they’re willing to bargain in good faith once we get to the table,” Young says. “We’re excited to do that and we’re looking forward to doing that.”