Madison Sourdough’s union has seen only “tiny bites of progress” toward a contract

As negotiations continue to stall, workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge, accusing management of not bargaining in good faith.
A photo of a bakery with a wall full of different types of bread.
A selection of bread offerings at Madison Sourdough. Workers are pushing for longer bargaining sessions and in order to expedite the negotiation process. Photo by Ashley Rodriguez.

As negotiations continue to stall, workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge, accusing management of not bargaining in good faith.

On April 5, 2023, workers at Madison Sourdough, a popular bakery and café, won their union vote 27 to 13. Four months later, workers say little progress has been made to ratify a first union contract. 

The union filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge on July 31 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that Madison Sourdough management has refused to bargain with the union in good faith. The complaint is currently under review, and the union continues to post sporadic bargaining updates through its Instagram account.

Lolo Young, a baker who has worked for Madison Sourdough for over a year, says the bargaining committee, a group of workers plus representatives from the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1473 says they’ve been to the bargaining table over half a dozen times without much success.

“We’ve had six bargaining sessions so far; broadly speaking, they have been unproductive,” Young says, speaking to Tone Madison in mid-August (after Tone Madison interviewed Young, the union met with management for a seventh session, according to an update on the union’s Instagram page). “Management is absolutely stalling, which is a drag in terms of not sharing information that we require.” 

The ULP complaint alleges that management “has failed and refused to bargain in good faith … by failing and refusing to supply said labor organization with requested information relevant to its performance as bargaining agent,” the complaint reads. 

“We have responded to the union’s allegations pending before the National Labor Relations Board and are fully cooperating in the agency’s process,” wrote Emily Hutchison, one of the co-owners of Madison Sourdough, in an email to Tone Madison

Unproductive meetings

Young says management hasn’t given the union enough time during negotiation meetings. 

“We just had our first eight-hour session [on August 8],” she says, noting that most negotiation meetings have run between two and four hours. “The two-hour meetings we’ve had have been an insufficient amount of time for us to get things done. The first three sessions—I mean, they could have been emails, and nothing was accomplished. That’s a waste of our bargaining committee’s time.” 

“Short sessions of conversation over what seems like endlessly detailed scrutiny of language and legal jargon takes a lot of time,” says Theresa Schwaar, a baker who has been with Madison Sourdough since April 2023. “We present a paragraph, we separate so they can discuss, they come back with a modification or refusal and tiny bites of productivity are made. It might take four hours to agree on a few important sentences about rights or procedures.” 

Although not part of the complaint, some union workers also feel disrespected by co-owner Andrew Hutchison, who the union says has only been to about half of the negotiation meetings. “One of the owners, Andrew Hutchison, has attended three bargaining sessions—two were the initial sessions that could have been an email,” says Young. 

Other members of management have shown up to negotiations, along with a lawyer from Littler Mendelson, a law firm that describes itself as able to “guide companies in developing and initiating strategies that lawfully avoid unions.” The law firm, which currently represents Starbucks as it goes through its own union fight, was retained by Madison Sourdough early in the unionization process. 

Despite lawyers and other members of management sitting in, including Emily, Young notes that Andrew’s absence has been a critical hurdle during the bargaining process. 

“This is tricky for two reasons. First of all, it’s just disrespectful to the committee after all the effort we put in and all the time we’re taking out of our lives to be there—it’s rude and shows that he does not take us seriously, which is disrespectful,” she says. “Second, it’s a barrier to bargaining: he has the most operational knowledge of the bakery. It’s his institutional knowledge that would aid in bargaining.” 

“Things have felt intentionally held up,” says Schwaar. “Other details, like near months between bargaining sessions, seem to support this impression.”

“The Company has participated in seven bargaining sessions since May,” writes Hutchison. “We continue to bargain in good faith, exchanging proposals and counter-proposals in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable collective bargaining agreement. The parties have scheduled additional sessions and the Company looks forward to continuing negotiations.”

A familiar fight

While frustrating, the pace at which union negotiations happen is a familiar story. Winning a union vote is an incredible victory often celebrated in the media, but the ultimate goal is to ratify a first contract. According to Bloomberg Law, the average union spends 409 days between winning their election and signing a contract. 

On June 7, 2023, the workers of the Colectivo Collective, representing workers across 20 Colectivo Coffee locations in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, ratified their first contract and became the nation’s largest coffee workers union. They initially won their union vote in August 2021, and a series of challenges by ownership meant the final vote wasn’t confirmed until March 2022. From there, it would be another 16 months before both sides signed their first contract. 

Ratifying a contract is a critical step: it’s often the culmination of a union push and codifies the protections and rules a union seeks to implement. And businesses and management have a tangible incentive to extend the negotiation process for as long as possible. “As long as we don’t have a contract, those are potential unpaid wages. That’s time we continue to be overworked; injuries can become more frequent, exhaustion, burnout is more frequent, et cetera,” says Young. “Everything we hope to improve in the workplace doesn’t take effect until we get a contract. They don’t have to make any changes until we get a contract.” 

Schwaar expressed frustration with the pace of negotiations, saying that management seems to misunderstand and personalize their union fight. 

“They seem to think our selfish desire for security at work will ruin everything they ([sarcastic] single-handedly without a fleet of skilled bakers) have built,” Schwaar says. “To me, the bargaining process has felt like we asked for our terms of employment to be discussed and written down, but that somehow they heard we wanted to destroy the bakery and sell the parts for profit.

The long, drawn-out negotiation process has clarified what the union is fighting for. “Our jobs are difficult, and they’re made more difficult by the fact that people burn out and turnover is so high, which both affects the quality of the job, the quality of our lives, and our ability to bargain,” says Young. “Those are the things we’re fighting to change here … we need to make this job sustainable for all of us. That’s what everyone needs and deserves out of a job.”

The NLRB asserts that once a union wins its vote, union members and management must come together to “bargain in good faith” to reach a contract. While there are some parameters for what “good faith” means, the standard still leaves room for interpretation—actions one side might consider counterproductive to the negotiation process can be argued as legitimate or necessary by the other. 

“They say things like, ‘We’re a small business; we don’t know how to negotiate,’ but from the beginning, they hired a law firm that’s worked with unions,” says Young.

She also notes that negotiations are getting stuck in minute details, preventing the union from tackling its most important objectives. “It’s incredibly tedious because the Littler Mendelson lawyer that management has retained insists upon haggling over the tiniest little details and refusing to get to more important topics,” she says. 

Not what was promised

Union contract negotiations can take time, but Young says that part of her frustration lies in the discrepancy between management’s purported values and how slowly negotiations have gone. “Management has been talking a lot about how they are, in fact, very pro-union people—that’s what we keep hearing,” Young says. “And to that, I would say, ‘Okay, put your money where your mouth is.'”

When Tone Madison first reached out to Andrew Hutchison after the union victory, he said he “intend[ed] to bargain in good faith and look[ed] forward to securing a contract that everybody agrees upon.” 

However, Young is hopeful that the tide is beginning to turn. “It’s still slow going, but slight progress has been made,” she says. “We’ve started to make slow progress at longer sessions. A four-hour session is enough to accomplish maybe one tiny thing. And we finally had our first eight-hour session  [on August 8], and I’m pleased to say that was the most progress we’ve seen so far.”   

Schwaar agrees that the first eight-hour session was “much more productive” and she “hopes the company will consider upholding the momentum longer sessions provide.” The union has since met with management a seventh time in late August, a session where seven tentative agreements were made. “They have been making more productive use of time with some tentative agreements reached in more recent sessions, which is a big improvement we hope to see continue,” says Schwaar. 

Although progress is being made, the union still hopes to schedule more frequent bargaining sessions. “In the next 70 days, we have three 6 hour sessions of bargaining scheduled,” the union stated in a late-August Instagram post. “The bargaining unit has consistently advocated for more and longer bargaining sessions with once a week being our preferred minimum … we are confident with more regular sessions we would be able to present a contract to be voted on in a timely fashion. We are hoping the company will be able to provide us with more regular sessions to this end soon.” 

In the meantime, Young says it’s critical for customers to stay engaged. Union workers have started Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts to post updates and are raising funds to support workers. “We have not called a strike yet, but our mutual aid/strike fund is to sustain our workers if people get sick or get injured, and the car breaks down, et cetera—we’re already lowly staffed,” says Young. “But it can also be used as a strike fund if we want to go that route.”

The ULP complaint is in the hands of the NLRB. “Both parties will provide information to the NLRB, and after an investigation, the NLRB will make a determination,” says Young. “This process could take many more weeks, which is thousands of dollars in LM [Littler Mendelson] attorneys fees that could be going to a safe, sustainable, fair contract for our workforce!” 

In the meantime, Young asks customers to share their support with workers. “Throw your weight behind the workers. Still come to Madison Sourdough—we’d love to see you come. Bring a little note, tell the front of the house, ‘I got your back. I’m here for you.'”

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