.Amy’s Kitchen Workers’ Union Push Garners National Attention

Production workers with Amy’s Kitchen are calling foul on the growing frozen-food company’s labor practices.

In January, five workers employed at the company’s flagship production facility in Santa Rosa were quoted in an NBC News article alleging systemic problems at the facility, as workers are pushed to meet ever-increasing production demands but left with expensive and insufficient medical care when they are injured.

“First, we were doing 21,000 plates in eight hours. Then they saw that they could do more,” Cecilia Luna Ojeda, a long-time employee, told the news outlet. Ojeda says that production lines now produce 25,716 plates in an 8 1/2-hour shift.

In a public statement in response to the allegations, founders Andy and Rachel Berliner wrote, “This report does not reflect who we are as a company and the values we uphold… We want all Amy’s employees to feel like they are being taken care of, and we are deeply saddened to hear about the experiences these five employees have described.”

Teamsters Local 665 is pushing to unionize the Santa Rosa facility, which they say will allow workers to win workplace improvements. So far, Amy’s management has opposed the suggestion.

Prior to this, Amy’s Kitchen had a well-maintained reputation as an eco-friendly, mom-and-pop company. The company’s website features “Love Letters” from customers, and one of the company’s tag lines is “We love to cook for you.” But, while factory workers were alluded to in a few Instagram posts early in the pandemic, most of the company’s more recent social media posts feature customers’ feedback and the story of the company’s founders.

In truth, Amy’s Kitchen’s long ago outgrew its folksy Sonoma County origin story, which involves the Berliners’ culinary experiments in their Petaluma home in 1987 following the birth of their daughter, Amy. Today, the company is reportedly the sixth largest manufacturer of frozen meals in the country, selling 230 million products each year. Amy’s now employs around 2,800 workers, with production facilities in Calif., Ore. and Idaho.

Early in the pandemic, when families were sheltering in place, sales of some Amy’s products shot up 100%, the company’s co-founder told the San Jose Mercury News last year when the company opened a new 65,000-square-foot production center in San Jose to meet rising demand.

Just days before the workplace allegations broke, the North Bay Business Journal reported on a financial deal which seemed aimed at allowing the company to expand even further. Specifically, the company sold and leased back three production facilities, including the Santa Rosa factory, in order to raise $144 million in liquid cash from a New York real estate investment firm.

Soon after the NBC News piece was published, Teamsters Local 665 launched a public campaign to support the Santa Rosa union drive, sharing pictures of protests in front of the facility, responses to Amy’s Kitchen’s statement  and pictures of local labor-supporting politicians on a newly-formed Facebook page.

On Jan. 20, the Teamsters helped an Amy’s employee file a complaint with Cal/OSHA, the state workplace safety agency, alleging a wide range of problems at the Santa Rosa facility, including “pressure to maintain line speeds,” blocked fire exits and more, according to an NBC News report.

In an interview with NBC News, Amy’s Kitchen’s Chief People Officer Mike Resch disputed many of the allegations in the complaint. OSHA records show that the agency has fined Amy’s for past accidents and complaints stemming from incidents at the Santa Rosa plant. Amy’s has contested some of the fines and, in public statements, said that the company’s OSHA complaint rate is lower than the industry average.

The Amy’s Kitchen campaign comes amid something of an uptick in labor organizing at previously non-union companies across the country.

Last year, Starbucks employees in Buffalo, N.Y., successfully unionized a coffee shop, kicking off buzz about drives elsewhere. Now, employees at 54 Starbucks locations across the country are attempting to unionize. Meanwhile, Amazon workers in Alabama are making a second attempt to unionize one of the company’s warehouses after the National Labor Relations Board ordered another election due to the tactics Amazon used in the election last year.

Will Carruthershttp://www.wrcarruthers.com
Will Carruthers is the news editor of the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.
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