KALAMAZOO, MI – The 18 bakers working the night shift at six Southwest Michigan Panera Bread bakery and cafes have voted to become the first employees of the chain to form a union in the United States.
After the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the I-94 division represented "an appropriate unit," a secret ballot was held March 22 at all six area locations. When the NLRB counted the ballots, the bakers had voted to unionize by a two-to-one margin.
"This is actually historic. They're the first in the country to unionize," said John Price, international representative for the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM), which represents some 85,000 to 90,000 workers at companies such as Hershey, Kellogg, General Mills and Keebler.
"This group was ready. They did all the work themselves," said Price, who added that the Labor Board will issue certification to the I-94 corridor workers on Friday. The Panera workers will be represented by Local 70 out of Grand Rapids. "This is a really intelligent group. They really impressed me. For the most part, they are under 30. They used social media to contact one another."
The bakers' use of Facebook and other social media tools are modern twists in the history of collective bargaining -- ones that may prove especially effective in the future, experts say.
"You see a lot of this happening on Facebook and emails. It is very hard for an employer to counter," said Satish Deshpande, associate dean at the Haworth College of Business at Western Michigan University. Deshpande pointed out that no one has to hand out pamphlets or meet in hotel rooms anymore. And while employers can bar union organizers from the workplace, they can't bar them from Facebook.
"Thanks to social media, union organizers can very easily access these people directly at their homes. ... You can control your employees at the workplace, but once they leave the workplace, it's impossible," Deshpande said.
While the heyday of strikes and collective bargaining may lie in the past, unions remain a larger presence -- particularly in Michigan, with its strong labor tradition -- than some might think, Deshpande and others say. But forming a new union is much more complicated than just agreeing to stand together and collecting dues.
"It's a lot rarer than you would think. It's fairly hard to organize a union. In reality, the labor laws are generally stacked against workers when they try to organize," said John Beck, associate director of the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. This year, Beck said, 12 percent of all U.S workers are organized, with 9 percent of private-sector workers and a little over one-third of the public sector workforces belonging to unions.
In West Michigan, the percentages are a bit higher, with 17 percent of total workers belonging to a union, said Deshpande. "It's not as if unions are a foreign organization for folks in Michigan. Given the way the economy has gone, people want issues in the workplace to be taken care of. So, it's not surprising."
Perhaps not surprising, but the vote was disappointing for the area's new franchise owners.
"We're new owners of the business, really for just a few months," said Sandy McElfresh, director of sales and marketing for Manna Development Group in Encinitas, Calif., which owns 17 Paneras across West Michigan, with an 18th about to open in Mount Pleasant. Manna's purchase of the West Michigan Panera franchises from Trigo was finalized in August/September of 2011, McElfresh said. "Really, we're disappointed."
Because of the difficulty involved in establishing a union, it's not usually a first choice for employees to handle grievances, Deshpande said.
"Clearly there was strong dissatisfaction in the workplace. People don't form unions unless there are clearly issues in the workplace," said Deshpande, who added that workers will typically try to resolve issues directly with their boss or supervisor before turning to an outside organization.
Price said that the bakers came to the BCTGM because they were "looking for some dignity and respect. They felt they were being undercompensated."
"A baker used to be considered a skilled profession," said Daniel Wood, one of the bakers, adding that their jobs take more skill than, say, flipping burgers. "If you don't think so, I invite you to make 200 baguettes in a night."
Other areas of concern included medical insurance, time off and workplace safety issues.
But McElfresh said that the number of workers who voted to unionize represent just a small number of West Michigan Panera employees.
"There are 11 people out of the hundreds who work out of our West Michigan stores who felt they needed outside representation," said McElfresh. "It isn't the opinion we heard from the vast majority of our West Michigan workers. It isn't the opinion we heard from the majority of our bakers. .... It isn't reflective of our values and culture."
That said, McElfresh continued, "We're going to continue to treat our bakers with respect and fairness, and to serve our customers with excellence."
Deshpande, for one, believes that while the formation of the union isn't exactly good public relations for Panera, the brand is well-regarded enough for its reputation not to take a hit. "It's a good brand name, people love eating there. They've got a solid product," he said.
The next step for the newly unionized bakers will be to negotiate a contract with management.
"By law, they have to continue working for the company under the current conditions, and the company has to continue paying them" until the contract is finalized, Price explained.
They have one year to do so, and getting to that first contract is particularly important, said Beck.
"Everyone who wins a union election does not necessarily get a union contract. A lot of them win the battle, but lose the war long-term," said Beck. "Winning the election is only the first thing. Then you have to go from there."