The spirit of unions is in the air, from Amazon to Starbucks. Now workers from two California frozen food factories are joining the action. But they face serious challenges from their employer, Amy’s Kitchen, despite the progressive branding.
According to the North Bay Business Journal, Amy’s Kitchen is the sixth largest manufacturer of organic frozen meals in the United States and the leading manufacturer of organic vegetarian products in the United States. The company has over 2,000 employees, most of whom are Central American immigrants who do not speak English.
On June 1, UNITE HERE Local 19, a union that represents workers at Amy’s Kitchen in San Jose, filed multiple allegations of unfair labor practices against the food company. The union claims the company subjected workers to mandatory anti-union rallies, surveillance, threats and interrogations, and fired two employees for organizing them.
Workers at another Amy’s Kitchen restaurant in Santa Rosa, California are also trying to unionize. Teamsters Local 665 has filed a complaint with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleging that the company’s dangerous shortage of staff leads to a dizzying pace of work and that it does not provide access to water and regular toilet breaks.
“Workers are ignored, shamed and retaliated when they use the toilet,” the union complained. “The overseer asked one worker to provide a doctor’s note if he wants to use the toilet during his shift.”
FIRED AFTER STATEMENT
Workers face similar conditions at the San Jose plant, which employs about 250 people. It opened last year to meet the high demand for frozen pizza.
Machine operator Hector Guardado was fired May 19 after leading a group of workers to complain about poor working conditions and the treatment of a colleague who was fined for sick leave. The company said he was fired for leaving his car unattended; however, Guardado said he told the line manager that he was going to talk to the manager.
“We took the initiative and tried to talk to our management about the situation to make our factory better, but they showed little interest in working with us,” Guardado said. “Instead, they began to take revenge on us. I’m being fired for speaking out in support of my colleague.”
Amy’s Kitchen did not respond to requests for comment.
Preparatory chef Raul Vargas said he witnessed intimidation tactics for workers involved in union activities. “There is a lot of favoritism,” Vargas said. “If you have a good relationship with supervisors or leaders, then the rule does not apply to these people. But if you’re not with them, all the rules apply to that person. They are not fair to everyone.”
After being charged with unfair labor practices, he expects a response from management: “What they are going to do, I don’t know, but it’s definitely not going to be good.”
CLOSED FIRE EXITS
In addition to Santa Rosa and San Jose, Amy’s Kitchen has two other manufacturing facilities in Idaho and Oregon.
Last year, the company received the B Corp certification, which recognizes companies that use profits and growth to positively impact their employees, communities, and the environment. UNITE HERE has filed a complaint with the B Lab Standards Advisory Board to review Amy’s Kitchen certification.
Amy’s Kitchen also paid more than $100,000 for OSHA violations, of which the union claimed the company did not report $95,750 when applying for B Corp. certification. The workers who filed these complaints with OSHA reported closed fire exits and a lack of proper training to operate heavy machinery.
“The company claims they are not destroying unions,” says Maria del Carmen Gonzalez, a worker who was unable to undergo surgery for a work-related shoulder injury until a year after the injury. “So why are they spending so much on these people? [union busters] but not on our [health] insurance?”
Anzhela Bunay – editor-in-chief of the magazine Cornell Daily Sun and intern at Labor Notes.