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Amy’s Kitchen supporters and allied employees stood in favor of their employer during a rally in front of the Santa Rosa production facility on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, after recent complaints in the news about working conditions by other employees. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Union organizers and workers decry ‘union busting’ consulting firms hired by Amy’s Kitchen

Every Friday afternoon, dozens of workers in green shirts gather outside the bustling entrance to the Amy’s Kitchen factory in Santa Rosa.

Their chant — “Fuera union!” (get out, union!) — rings out across the parking lot as hundreds of employees begin and end their shifts at the food production plant.

The weekly anti-union rallies are an outward sign of tensions inside the factory, a longtime employer of more than 600 area workers, many of whom are immigrant women.

Inside the plant, company-paid labor management consultants spend time on the production line and in break rooms, speaking to workers, pulling groups of people into meetings and training managers.

Their goal, pro-union workers say, is to scare their colleagues away from the organizing through dishonest portrayals of how unions work.

Recently, aggressive anti-union tactics have been employed by liberal-facing companies like REI and Starbucks, said Jane McAlevey, a union organizer, author and senior policy fellow at UC Berkeley.

Pro-union employees say they believe that’s what’s happening at Amy’s.

“What they are doing is dividing us (workers),” said Maria Guadalupe Sanchez, a 17-year veteran of the plant. “It’s not the union, it’s them,” she said about the company-paid consultants.

Amy’s position is that the company doesn’t want its employees to unionize. But executives say they are only trying to inform their workforce, not sway their decision.

“We are very supportive of our employee’s right to choose,” company spokesman Paul Schiefer said during a tour of the well-oiled 100,000-square-foot factory. Company officials offered the tour after The Press Democrat inquired about the labor consultants.

Irene Mendoza’s daughter,  Magali,  holds a sign In support of her mother who is a worker at the Amy’s Kitchen production facility and was protesting the working conditions along with other Amy’s food line workers outside the Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Irene Mendoza’s daughter, Magali, holds a sign In support of her mother who is a worker at the Amy’s Kitchen production facility and was protesting the working conditions along with other Amy’s food line workers outside the Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

“What we’re hearing is that (unionizing) isn’t what our employees really want, and so we have to support both sides of that sentiment,” Schiefer said. “All that we’re doing is making sure our employees are informed about what’s going on.”

But workers, union-leaders and experts call the consultants “union busters,” and say their job is to travel the country persuading workers against forming a union. If Amy’s executives wanted to respect workers’ right to choose, they wouldn’t have hired the consultants, said organizers with the Teamsters Local 665, the union seeking to represent plant workers.

According to LaborLab, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that claims to watchdog “the union-busting industry,” employers spend as much as $300 million a year on lawyers and consultants to counter union organizing.

Heated union fight

In recent news stories and a Cal/OSHA complaint, Amy’s workers questioned conditions on the production lines churning out prepared organic dishes. In the wake of those claims, Amy’s executives describe the weekly rallies as welcome worker support and pushback against a union they see as aiming to tarnish the brand.

Amy’s Kitchen supporters and allied employees raise their voices during a rally in front of the Santa Rosa production facility on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, after recent complaints in the news about working conditions brought forward by other employees. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Amy’s Kitchen supporters and allied employees raise their voices during a rally in front of the Santa Rosa production facility on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, after recent complaints in the news about working conditions brought forward by other employees. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

“There is a negative information campaign that the union is pushing on certain topics that we have really taken seriously,” Schiefer said.

“We’re here because we want to support the company,” line worker Tere Paniagua said at a Feb. 4 rally. “We’re fine without the union.”

But the employees who want to engage in collective bargaining say the rallies are designed to intimidate them.

“A lot of workers are scared of those others in the green shirts who might run and go tell the managers whose side they’re on,” worker Maria Aguilar told The Press Democrat the same day.

Amy’s management says they have nothing to do with the rallies but will not interfere with workers who want to express their support.

According to interviews with company officials and federal filings reviewed by The Press Democrat, Amy’s executives hired consultants after managers learned of union activity in September. Consultants have also been contracted to work at Amy’s Kitchen production center in San Jose.

Tensions within the Santa Rosa plant only became public last month. The anti-union rallies started Jan. 28, two days after a pro-union protest outside Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park.

A brief history of Amy’s Kitchen

Rachel and Andy Berliner founded Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma in 1987 and named the company after their then-newborn daughter. It has grown steadily ever since, becoming a major Sonoma County employer while opening plants in Oregon and Idaho.

From its humble roots, Amy’s became the leading domestic producer of organic vegetarian packaged foods and is the sixth-largest U.S. maker of frozen dishes overall with more than 180 products, according to the North Bay Business Journal, a sister publication of The Press Democrat. The company shipped 21 million cases of food in 2020.

The company saw a boom during the pandemic, particularly at the start, when panicked shoppers rushed to stock up on prepared and frozen dishes. The boom was so great that the company hired 753 employees that year, with 188 of the new jobs in Sonoma County.

Andy Berliner stepped away briefly from his CEO role in August 2020. But he returned to the job in May 2021 after his replacement, Xavier Unkovic, left the company.

In January, Amy’s Kitchen sold three of its production facilities to a New York real estate investment trust, including the 107,000-square-foot Santa Rosa plant on Northpoint Parkway. Amy’s then leased the spaces back in a deal that was estimated to raise $144 million for the company.

Amy’s Kitchen production facility workers from left, Lesbia Blanco, Inez De La Luz, Natalie Crisostomo, and Adrian Guillen, protest the working conditions at the kitchen production facility outside the Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park on Jan. 26, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Amy’s Kitchen production facility workers from left, Lesbia Blanco, Inez De La Luz, Natalie Crisostomo, and Adrian Guillen, protest the working conditions at the kitchen production facility outside the Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park on Jan. 26, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Notorious consultant

Amy’s hired a firm called Quest Consulting, which, according to business filings, was founded by Lupe Cruz in 2019 in Henderson, Nevada. Cruz and six other consultants working at Amy's Kitchen will eventually have to disclose how much the company paid them, but have not yet.

Amy’s Kitchen supporters and allied employees rally in front of the Santa Rosa production facility on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, after recent complaints in the news about working conditions by other employees. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Amy’s Kitchen supporters and allied employees rally in front of the Santa Rosa production facility on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, after recent complaints in the news about working conditions by other employees. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Federal labor forms filed for previous work indicate the consultancies are lucrative businesses. Cruz has reported annual receipts of as high as $5 million under a previous firm, called Cruz & Associates Inc. Among his larger clients are Vantage Foods, a beef and pork processing plant in Pennsylvania, and in 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s International Hotel Las Vegas.

Among labor organizers and in pro-union publications, Cruz’s work in that hotel and elsewhere has earned him a reputation as a notorious union-buster who specializes in influencing Latino-dominated workforces.

At a New Jersey bottling plant for the soda giant Refresco, immigrant workers fought “a very tough battle” against Cruz to form their union in June, Diana Acevedo, a plant worker who helped organize her colleagues, told The Press Democrat.

Consultants papered the plant with anti-union fliers, hung around production lines and pulled workers into conversations and lectures rife with misinformation, according to Acevedo.

“They invented a thousand things,” she said.

The Press Democrat left three messages in recent weeks seeking comment from Cruz with receptionists at an answering service for Quest Consulting that were not returned. A woman who answered the phone at a California phone number listed for Cruz & Associates said the company had been dissolved.

Cruz has a history of portraying unions as a big business taking advantage of workers, said John Ocampo, an organizer for United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the union that organized the Refresco plant.

Identification cards for ingredients that may cause allergic reactions hang above employees as they prepare Indian Vegetable Korma frozen meals in the Amy's Kitchen production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Identification cards for ingredients that may cause allergic reactions hang above employees as they prepare Indian Vegetable Korma frozen meals in the Amy's Kitchen production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Ocampo said he believes the core of Cruz’s message is trying to convince “people (who) are making minimum wage that they don’t need any more.”

Schiefer said before the consultants were hired, employees told managers union organizers visited their homes, asked whether they had complaints about their workplace and asked them to sign union documents.

In response, company leaders sought “experts in this space,” to educate workers and supervisors, he said.

The consultants have told people the Teamsters will draw down their paychecks but provide little in return, workers interviewed by The Press Democrat said.

“The union busters are telling the workers that the union is not beneficial to you, that the union is going to take a lot of money out of our check,” worker Aguilar said.

Teamsters officials say Amy’s workers would pay their standard dues, the equivalent of 2.5 hours pay each month.

A rumor is also spreading around the plant, often voiced by the same people who join in the protests, that company's CEO Andy Berliner has said he will close the plant if its workers unionize.

In a statement Wednesday, Berliner rejected that idea.

“As a proudly independent, family-owned organic food company, we value individual rights and freedoms,” Berliner said in the statement. “We respect our employees’ choices and their rights regarding union representation. We absolutely will not close any facility simply because employees choose to pursue their rights regarding unionization – whether yes or no.”

Pro-union workers say the consultants are there to influence them.

Amy’s Kitchen employee’s arguments against unionizing

“We don’t need rules from the union so that's' why I said, ‘No, I don’t wanna go to the union,”’ said Aria Iturbe, who has been working in quality control for 30 years.

“They always support me,” said Chhean Oun, 42, who has been a production line trainer for 17 years. “That’s why I always want to support Amy’s ... If they want to support the union, they can go, but don’t attack Andy.”

Lilia Chavez, a line lead, said there’s no need for a union. “We have insurance, we have PTO (paid time off), we have training to prevents safety. They give us tea, they give us coffee, and when it’s more hot they give us Gatorade” she said. “Before we work, we stretch, we stop every hour to let people stretch and get water ... we even (get) scholarships here.”

“They want the union to come take care of instead of our supervisors or our managers” said Teresa Paniagua, 31, who has worked on the line for over 8 years. “We’re fine without the union.”

“That was their job — to discourage people from forming a union,” Cecilia Luna Ojeda, one of the advocates for a union, said of the consultants. She recalled finishing a shift after midnight and finding consultants in the break room, drinking soda and looking for workers to speak to.

“We felt intimidated and uncomfortable,” with the consultants around the plant, she said.

An employee strains tofu in the Amy's Kitchen production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
An employee strains tofu in the Amy's Kitchen production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

“They aren’t in our shoes,” she said. “Their job is to earn money and I don’t imagine it is little what (Amy’s is) paying them.”

Schiefer declined to say how much Amy’s was paying the consultants.

The consultants have held trainings for supervisors and been “made available” in the workers’ lunch room, walked around the plant to talk with workers who had questions and held question-and-answer sessions, Schiefer said.

The company hired consultants who were culturally and linguistically a good fit for their employees, not unlike leadership trainers or even the health care facilities the company provides, he said.

“Many people have never worked anywhere other than Amy’s and they trust Amy’s and wanted an answer from us,” Schiefer said.

Amy's Kitchen plant manager Noe Mojica, left, and Paul Schiefer, the senior director of sustainability and social impact, at the production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Amy's Kitchen plant manager Noe Mojica, left, and Paul Schiefer, the senior director of sustainability and social impact, at the production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Noe Mojica, the general manager of the Santa Rosa plant, who has written a Press Democrat guest column about his positive experience working for the company, signed off on hiring the labor management consultants at Amy’s.

Mojica said workers “care about this place and they feel proud about it.” He said the union drive has united workers behind the company in response to an inaccurate portrayal of working conditions.

But pro-union workers say they, too, care about the company, while also seeking a stronger voice.

“We’re made to feel we’re not wanted when in reality all we want is to make things better for the workers on the lines,” said Flor Menjivar, a four-year veteran at the plant.

Since the consultants began their work, “people are starting to get confused and scared,” she said.

From the arguments that the company is akin to a family and doesn’t need outside intervention to the anti-union rallies in front of the plant, Amy’s Kitchen workers are seeing a textbook effort to halt organized labor, said McAlevey, the UC-Berkeley fellow.

“There’s nothing innocent once you hire a union-busting firm,” she said.

Rallies and rising tension

Amy’s Kitchen supporters and allied employees rally in front of the Santa Rosa production facility on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, after recent complaints in the news about working conditions by other employees. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Amy’s Kitchen supporters and allied employees rally in front of the Santa Rosa production facility on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, after recent complaints in the news about working conditions by other employees. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

The weekly rallies outside the production plant have been organized by a former manager and line-lead’s daughter, Della Chang.

Chang, 32, doesn’t work for Amy’s Kitchen, but she said her mother has worked there for more than 20 years. Her mother is in charge of the trainers who instruct line workers how to perform their duties, according to Menjivar.

Shiefer and Mojica said managers and supervisors are not supposed to be involved in the anti-union rallies. But pro-union workers say they’ve seen clear support in a variety of ways.

Menjivar has seen Chang’s mother, Lilia Chavez, reminding line workers about the demonstrations, she said.

“They're getting together after work and they're saying we want to show the world what Amy's is in reality,” Mojica said. “That kind of made me emotional, honestly.”

They are fighting against unionizing on their own time “so the company doesn’t get shut down,” Chang said.

The rallies are “important for all people that work there and love the company,” Chang said. She felt it was her duty to organize the workers because many of them felt they had no voice following the accusations against their workplace. She added they are fighting against unionizing on their own time “so the company doesn’t get shut down.”

“That girl doesn’t even know what she’s talking about because she doesn’t even work here,” said line worker Judith Moron a 25-year veteran, signaling to Chang at a rally in late January.

An employee places bean and cheese burritos on a conveyor belt after being rolled up in the Amy's Kitchen production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.(Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
An employee places bean and cheese burritos on a conveyor belt after being rolled up in the Amy's Kitchen production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.(Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Moron and other workers interviewed by The Press Democrat said many of those rallying had left the production line for one-on-one meetings with consultants.

Some of them had even been pro-union before those meetings, she said, and then suddenly switched sides to don green shirts.

You can reach Staff Writers Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com and Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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