By Angela Bunay / LaborNotes
The spirit of unionizing is in the air, from Amazon to Starbucks. Now the workers in two frozen food factories in California are getting in on the action. But they’re facing serious union-busting from their employer, Amy’s Kitchen, despite its progressive branding.
Amy’s Kitchen is the sixth-largest maker of organic frozen meals in the United States and the top U.S. producer of organic vegetarian food, according to the North Bay Business Journal. The company employs more than 2,000 workers, a majority of them Central American immigrants who do not speak English.
On June 1, UNITE HERE Local 19, representing the workers of Amy’s Kitchen in San Jose, filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against the food company. The union alleges that the company subjected workers to mandatory anti-union meetings, surveillance, threats, and interrogations, and terminated two employees for their organizing.
Workers at another Amy’s Kitchen location in Santa Rosa, California, are also trying to unionize. Teamsters Local 665 filed a complaint to the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging that the company’s hazardous understaffing forces a breakneck pace and that it fails to provide access to water and regular bathroom breaks.
“Workers are ignored, shamed, and retaliated against when they do use the restroom,” reads the union complaint. “One worker was asked by a supervisor to provide a doctor’s note if they wanted to use the bathroom during their shift.”
Fired After Speaking Out
Workers are facing similar conditions at the San Jose facility, which employs around 250 people. It opened last year to meet the high demand for frozen pizzas.
Machine operator Hector Guardado was fired on May 19 after leading a group of workers to complain about poor working conditions and the treatment of a co-worker who was penalized for taking sick time. The company claimed he was fired for leaving his machine unattended; however, Guardado said he told the line leader that he was going to speak with the manager.
“We took the initiative and tried to talk to our management about the situation to make our factory a better place, but they showed little interest in working with us,” said Guardado. “Instead, they began to retaliate against us. I am being fired for speaking out in support of my co-worker.”
Amy’s Kitchen did not respond to requests for comment.
Prep cook Raul Vargas said he has witnessed intimidation tactics against workers engaging in union activity. “There is a lot of favoritism,” said Vargas. “If you have a good relationship with the supervisors or leads, then the rule doesn’t apply to those people. But if you aren’t with them, every single rule applies to that person. They are not fair with everybody.”
After the filing of the unfair labor practice charges, he anticipates retaliation from management: “What they’re gonna do, I don’t know, but for sure it will be nothing good.”
Locked Fire Exits
Besides Santa Rosa and San Jose, Amy’s Kitchen has two other production facilities in Idaho and Oregon.
Last year the company received the B Corp certification, which is awarded to companies that use profits and growth to positively impact their employees, communities, and the environment. UNITE HERE has filed a complaint to the B Lab Standards Advisory Council asking it to re-evaluate Amy’s Kitchen’s certification.
Amy’s Kitchen has also paid more than $100,000 in OSHA violations, of which the union asserts the company failed to report $95,750 when applying for B Corp certification. The workers who filed those OSHA complaints reported locked fire exits and a lack of proper training for operating heavy machinery.
“The company says they’re not union-busting,” said Maria del Carmen Gonzales, a worker who was unable to get surgery for a work-related shoulder injury until a year after the injury occured. “So why are they spending so much on these people [union busters] but not on our [health] insurance?”