In June 2020, employees of Dandelion Chocolate, a boutique chocolate company that boasts single-origin, small-batch chocolates and locations in San Francisco, Tokyo, and Las Vegas, said the company had “culture issues with anti-Blackness not being treated seriously.” According to a report in Mission Local, Black employees were allegedly more likely to be penalized for being “aggressive,” and one manager texted an employee with a photo of an orangutan with the words “met your distant cousin.” Dandelion’s CEO, Todd Masonis, said at the time the “incidents were from in the past,” and that the company was changing its approach to these issues.
But according to current employees, the company still has problems with how it treats its employees. There are issues regarding low pay, workers’ safety while making and packaging chocolate, and management not listening to and resolving workers’ concerns. So Dandelion’s employees did what more workers at independent food production companies, and what more workers in all industries, are doing to address these issues. They unionized.
On March 19, workers formally announced the intent to form the Dandelion Chocolate Union and join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 6. In a petition of support, workers asked Dandelion Chocolate to voluntarily recognize the union, and demanded living wages, the end of at-will employment, and “an equal, respected, and protected voice on the job.” That’s because employees detail an environment in which raising concerns about working conditions has resulted in management retaliating against some employees, rather than looking at the problems being raised. “We feel that a union will gather together our voices in a way that that [has not been possible],” says Christine Keating, who has worked at Dandelion for seven years. “So we can actually start to work on these problems as opposed to continuing to push them down.”
Keating, who teaches classes and organizes events for Dandelion, says she was initially drawn to how passionate everyone at Dandelion was about their work (and, of course, the chocolate). “[My coworkers] always want to be getting better at what they’re doing, and they’re always on the hunt to do more things, and to find projects to do about chocolate, and to learn about chocolate,” she tells Eater. But the pandemic exacerbated issues she had already noticed at the company, mostly regarding the breakneck pace at which workers were expected to produce and package chocolate, leading, in some cases, to injury, and a pattern of decisions made by management seemingly at odds with what workers were asking for.
Chyler Barraca, a chocolate maker with Dandelion, worked until recently at the company’s Valencia location. They love the job, but it’s hard, repetitive, physical work that can easily result in stress injuries — they say chocolate makers regularly seek physical therapy for their hands and wrists. There were layoffs over the past year as well, so “we were down to five chocolate makers when we would usually operate around nine to 11 people on the floor.” The work was taking a physical and emotional toll on employees, and despite trying to work with management on adjusting production goals, “the workload and the strenuous activity and the stress remained the same.” Finally, Barraca and their coworkers reached out to human resources, saying Dandelion needed to hire more people. “We’re on the ground, we’re doing the work, we obviously need this. If we’re telling you that we need this, we need this,” they said.
According to Barraca, human resources offered to further discuss concerns, but they and their coworkers felt they had made themselves clear in a letter they sent. Eventually, they met with Masonis, and “his proposal was to shut down Valencia production. And that’s not at all what we asked for.”
Barraca also says Masonis explicitly said “budget wasn’t an issue.” Masonis comes from the tech world, having sold his startup, Plaxo, in 2008 to Comcast for $200 million. He started Dandelion Chocolate after roasting beans in a garage for a few years, and grew it into a venture-backed company. Dandelion also received a $1.35 million Paycheck Protection Program loan in April 2020, and reported it would be using $1,099,800 of that for payroll for its 95 employees.
Barraca says Masonis chose to shut down a production facility instead of hire more people so that it could run smoothly. The Valencia workers were then given two options: apply for work at the 16th Street facility or take a buyout. Masonis confirmed some of what happened in a comment he left on a Mission Local story about the Dandelion Chocolate Union, though he implies the Valencia location is only temporarily closed. “With chocolate making on hiatus at Valencia Street, we offered the six Valencia chocolate makers one of two options: join us at our neighboring 16th Street factory in equivalent roles and pay, or to take a voluntary layoff with additional severance,” he wrote. In a comment to Eater, he further explained that budget was indeed a concern, and that “we decided to combine the teams and add support to the 16th St factory, given that the machines are more efficient and the work could be distributed more evenly.” In a statement about the formation of the union, Masonis said, “On Friday, we received a Representation Petition from the NLRB. We’re currently learning more about what being in a union would mean for Dandelion and how we can be supportive of our team members. We’re looking forward to having productive conversations in the coming weeks as we learn more.”
While there are two sides to the story regarding the Valencia location (which has stopped producing chocolate but is still open for takeout), the communication regarding the decision seems to confirm an ongoing issue Keating noted about how Dandelion is run: That “top-down management decisions are made without a whole lot of regard for the workers that they affect.” Even if they are decisions workers ultimately agree with, “they tend to be rolled out in very haphazard, very rushed sorts of ways that … make us feel like we are not being taken into account.”
The issues weren’t just about this group of chocolate makers at the Valencia location. “A lot of us are scraping by. We don’t make enough to live in the Bay Area,” says Barraca. And in a comment on the same Mission Local story, former assistant manager Dave Mertzig alleges that the racist behavior covered in the news last year has persisted. “I witnessed a pattern of racism in the distribution of power at the company,” he wrote, where most people of color who worked for the company held underpaid, at-will positions, while the salaried, management positions were held mostly by white people. “This austere and racist approach on the part of the executive team fosters a workplace culture where competition over a few prime roles means those who hold the prime roles look to validate their position by pressuring their teams to meet ever-higher levels of efficiency and productivity.”
The Dandelion Chocolate Union is the latest in what’s starting to feel like a labor movement across many industries, but also specifically within food production. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 6, also represents Anchor Brewery and Tartine Bakery, the latter of which faced a lot of union-busting from management, including being forced to attend anti-union workshops. “Watching their support of Tartine as they went through that process, which ended up being a much bigger and more difficult process for them than they had been expecting, it definitely solidified the choice that we had made to go with ILWU to see how they were supportive of that team during their efforts,” says Keating.
Both Keating and Barraca stress they want to have a collaborative relationship with management, and that they care deeply about the ongoing success of Dandelion Chocolate. “I just really want to make work more enjoyable and make it sustainable, not just for management and the company image, but for everyone on the ground, hashing it out, grinding it out,” says Barraca. “I want to be proud because I love what I do … everyone wants just to come in and feel welcome and safe and feel like they can have a healthy work-life balance.”