Christine Keating loved working at Dandelion Chocolate: She started her time with the San Francisco company in 2014 as a chocolate maker and spent the next seven years climbing the ladder, eventually becoming Dandelion’s lead chocolate educator, hosting classes and tours at Dandelion’s massive factory in San Francisco’s Mission District.
But her last few years working at Dandelion were painful, she says.
Starting in spring 2021, Keating was instrumental in the effort to form the Dandelion Union, helping to mobilize her coworkers and set up meetings after hours. They gathered in the late night at each other’s homes and at local bars, and held rallies at Mission Dolores Park with local unions and pro-labor politicians. In April 2021, a union vote was held, and in September 2021 after sifting through contested votes, it was clear the union won. By then, though, Keating was looking for a new career in New York City, having been let go from Dandelion in early June.
Keating and three others involved in the unionization effort, including former Dandelion employees and organizers, allege that Dandelion Chocolate didn’t play by the rules following the vote, engaging in unfair labor practices that effectively crushed the fledgling union. “We had all grown and fought really hard in the campaign,” Keating says, adding that by the time the final union vote count happened it was clear there were too few union-supporting workers to sustain the Dandelion Union at all.
Dandelion Chocolate has been a San Francisco and Bay Area favorite since it opened more than a decade ago in 2010. Since 2020, however, the company has contended with myriad controversies, including allegations of racism among management, the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 health crisis, and a contentious union drive. Now, former staff and labor organizers say the company did everything in its power to dismantle the company’s young union — and that it worked. In a time when Santa Cruz teenagers are organizing their local Starbucks, those involved with Dandelion’s union push say that the company missed a chance to set an example as an independent business that supports its workers.
Dandelion’s workplace problems began to air in public in June 2020, when employees described a culture of “anti-Blackness” within the company, telling local news site Mission Local about an instance when a manager sent a racist text message to an employee. Then, in March 2021, employees announced plans to unionize. The union effort was part of a wave of worker-led accountability initiatives that came out of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement amid allegations of toxic and unsafe working conditions at businesses large and small. Dandelion’s employees became part of a golden moment for labor organizing; other high-profile Bay Area businesses, including Anchor Brewing and Tartine Bakery unionized in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and more recently Starbucks and Amazon workers have led successful union efforts nationally and in Northern California.
But the Dandelion Chocolate union effort was fraught from the start. In March 2021, former staff took to the comment section of Mission Local articles about the drive, voicing critical opinions about the company while local politicians, including District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, showed support for the effort. At the time, Dandelion Chocolate founder and owner Todd Masonis told Mission Local he was open to workers organizing and didn’t want Dandelion to be seen as an anti-union company.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) supported and bargained on behalf of Dandelion’s employees, as they had done successfully for employees at Anchor Brewing and Tartine. On April 20, Dandelion Chocolate employees turned in their cards in favor of the union. But voting to unionize is only the start of the unionization process; it can take months or even years of negotiations before workers and leadership reach a contract, which determines and specifies the rights employees gain. Documents shared with Eater SF show that in the days immediately after Dandelion workers voted to unionize, the company let go of at least nine employees who supported the effort, making it exceedingly difficult for workers to successfully negotiate a contract.
In response to the allegations that Dandelion terminated workers in an effort to undermine the union, Masonis provided Eater SF with a written statement saying that the layoffs were motivated purely by financial struggles related to the pandemic. “The unionization effort was challenging as the on-going uncertainty became a significant deterrent for prospective investors — and as an unprofitable business struggling with COVID — our bank account was rapidly approaching zero,” the statement reads in part. “In order to keep our doors open, we unfortunately had to make widespread layoffs.”
Eater SF could not confirm, however, if any employees outside of the union were impacted by the firings.
ILWU Organizing Director Ryan Dowling spent a lot of time talking with Masonis, acting as a liaison between workers and company leadership in the final months of the union’s legal battle with the company. Dowling, who has been working in labor organizing in the Bay Area for the better part of a decade, says the layoffs that happened just after the union vote constitute wrongful termination. After the layoffs, dozens of protestors, including Supervisors Dean Preston and Connie Chan, rallied to try to get the company to rehire the employees, according to Mission Local. At the time, Masonis said the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would “ensure [the firings] were proper.”
But according to Dowling, workers filed claims with the NLRB right after the firings, and the organization later found the terminations to be “unfair.” Had the employees opted to pursue cases against Dandelion Chocolate, a formal complaint from the NLRB could have resulted in a mandate to reinstate the employees and publicly acknowledge wrongdoing, Dowling says. But by the time the NLRB officially determined the allegations of unfair labor practices to be true — which didn’t happen until four months later in September 2021 — the former Dandelion workers were no longer interested in taking legal action. “The vast majority who had lost their jobs said, ‘I don’t even want to go back,’” Dowling says.
As an alternative, Dowling and Masonis agreed that Masonis and the company would offer a cash sum to employees who preferred to leave as long as they signed paperwork prohibiting the former employees from talking about their agreements with the company on the way out — a deal that extended not only to those laid off in June 2021, but also additional employees who opted to leave the company in September 2021. While it remains unclear how many more workers left the company by choice in the fall, Dowling estimates it was another four to six employees. Those who took the settlement are unable to disclose the financial amount they were given by Dandelion. But as a part of the agreement, the company promised to increase employee stock options and include floor workers on the board of directors; during the pandemic, Dandelion also ensured all employees had premium health insurance through Kaiser Permanente.
Because there was no formal litigation, the only records of the settlement between Masonis and workers come from the NLRB and include letters Masonis wrote to two public officials as part of the arbitration, Dowling says. In letters to District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and ILWU President William E. Adams dated October 4, 2021, Masonis apologized on behalf of his company for any “discomfort or harm” he caused to employees and wrote he was “unaware that some of these statements [made to staff] could cross the line or be considered violations of NLRA.” (The National Labor Relations Act covers employees’ right to freely associate and prohibits employers from discouraging their staff to do so.)
Dowling likens the situation to a criminal plea deal: Once Dandelion became aware the NLRB could pursue legal action against the company, Masonis opted instead to broker an agreement with workers. “They more or less copped a deal to avoid a government-issued complaint,” Dowling says.
For his part, Masonis says that of the numerous claims workers filed throughout the summer and fall of 2021, the majority were deemed “frivolous,” in Masonis’s words, by the NLRB. Only a relatively small number would have been investigated, he says, though, of course, the company had already reached settlements with workers by October.
It’s not uncommon for companies that engage in illegal union-busting tactics to avoid having to answer for those actions in court. Tony Dundon, an expert on work and employment studies at the National University of Ireland, Limerick, describes anti-union ideology as “the blatant intimidation of workers that strives to instill a fear (real or otherwise) of managerial reprisals for possible unionization.” His work also notes that union-busting can look like a company tying up the campaign efforts in time-consuming litigation. These types of behaviors — intimidating workers and dragging out the unionization process — are relatively common: Walmart and Amazon have both been called out for similar practices.
Edgar Franks, the political director of workers’ rights group Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Bellingham, Washington, says situations like the settlement reached between employees and Dandelion Chocolate are also quite common. Pursuing legal recompense through the NLRB is excruciatingly difficult for employees, wrongfully terminated or not, and can drag on for years as cases rack up hefty legal fees. “In our experience, companies choose to settle and assign NDAs when they know they’ve done something wrong,” Franks says. “They want to save face. They’d rather do that than allow workers to have a say in their workplace and fix issues.” Firing vocal union supporters, he adds, is a classic tactic in the union-busting playbook. “It’s meant to send a chill factor.”
In interviews with Eater SF, ILWU representatives and former Dandelion Chocolate staff shared a number of ways they say the company worked to undercut the efficacy of the union. Dowling says Masonis and management blamed staff when investors in the company pulled out due to talk of unionization, intimidated workers by abruptly laying off those who spoke out against the company, and made false promises to workers in an effort to undermine the union effort. (Eater SF spoke to two former staff members who asked to remain anonymous due to agreements they signed as a part of the settlement reached with the company.)
Evan McLaughlin, a local labor activist who worked with Tartine Bakery and Anchor Brewing on their union drives, is now the ILWU representative for Northern California. He confirms there was significant pushback from management at Dandelion Chocolate during the union campaign.
“When the vote actually happened, we only won that vote by a small margin due to the [company’s] campaign,” McLaughlin says. “After that point, there were a number of layoffs and one firing that only affected vocal union supporters. We maintain that unfair labor practices were committed.”
Dowling says he thinks Dandelion missed an opportunity to be a pro-worker chocolate business during a time when many conversations within the industry center on workers’ rights. “I think it’s disheartening that Dandelion Chocolate could turn letters in to the San Francisco County Board as well as the ILWU, apologize for infractions against labor law, then turn around and say there was no merit to what the labor board found,” he says. “If anything, I would think Todd would want to show that he learned from his mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Dandelion Chocolate is shuffling back into order in the wake of what was hopefully the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dandelion’s Valencia Street cafe reopened in March for indoor dining and shopping with extended store hours. The production facility in the Mission remains closed to the public, though an opening date for Bloom Salon, Dandelion’s dining option inside the factory, is set for later this summer. The Ferry Building outpost, which had previously been open for retail sales only, is back to serving food and drink, too.
Lisa Vega, executive pastry chef at Dandelion Chocolate, has been with the company since 2013. She says the staff has felt the impact of the last few years, but pandemic-related supply chain and safety issues have been more the company’s focus than addressing its part in the stalled union effort. “The union isn’t a part of day-to-day conversations,” Vega says. “We’ve been focused on building back our team as we do have quite a lot to do.”
Looking back, Keating acknowledges there were coworkers who weren’t excited about the union. One worker of about three years, who chose to remain anonymous and is not an active member of the union, says the union effort was the “crescendo of a lot of things that a union couldn’t help with.” They agreed with Vega that conversations about the union and the specific issues it was formed to address are not a day-to-day part of working at the factory. Masonis, for his part, enacted COVID hazard pay, provided remote work to teachers, baristas, and the bulk of the staff, and does hope to implement further worker benefits programs, too.
Keating says she’s glad to think Dandelion is supporting employees’ rights with some concessions Masonis made as a part of the settlement with workers last year, but fears the gutted union ranks won’t be able to bargain effectively — especially without the ILWU, which no longer represents the union due to the lack of resources. (Of the union’s decision to disclaim its interest in Dandelion, Masonis says, “My understanding is the decision was not directly linked to the settlement.”) Dowling says, however, that the Dandelion Union is still, at least on paper, a part of the local ILWU. If workers wanted to resume working with the ILWU tomorrow, they could. The problem is that the company could continue to drag out the process. Of the 20 “yes” votes cast to the 19 “nos” in the March 2021 election, at least 10 of the approving employees have since left the company or been laid off.
“Securing a first agreement is hard enough when you have active people,” Keating says.