Kathleen VonEitzen heads into work at 10 p.m. with a long night ahead of her. A trained baker, VonEitzen spends the evening and early morning hours cutting and shaping trays full of dough, shuffling between multiple ovens, and constantly checking her crusts until they're browned just right. She pulls hundreds of fresh baguettes, bagels, cookies and scones from the ovens until her shift finally ends around dawn.
VonEitzen, 55, doesn't work in some boutique bakery, but in a Panera Bread franchise in Battle Creek, Mich. The company prizes VonEitzen's craftsmanship, referring to her as an "artisan." "It takes a special type of person to dedicate their night to baking fresh bread," Panera says on its website.
Though Panera bakers don't bake from scratch (the raw dough comes from a regional facility) they're still required to master a wide range of baking disciplines. They typically undergo a "bakery boot camp" that's at least seven weeks long, with homework, exams and demonstration bakes, capped by a 90-day on-the-job assessment period. Many bakers say it takes a year on the job before they can comfortably handle all the responsibilities of the kitchen.
The fresh-made breads and pastries are Panera's hallmark, and they've earned the chain a devoted following among the kind of health-conscious, middle-class diners who are willing to spend $7 to $10 on a quick meal.
So-called "fast-casual" restaurants like Panera, Chipotle, Chopt and Cosi have come to occupy an increasingly large swath of the American dining landscape. Panera has expanded rapidly in recent years, and now boasts 1,600 locations in 44 states. By combining convenience with fresh, high-quality ingredients, it aims to offer something better than fast food.
But how much better are the jobs?
VonEitzen, who has worked at her Panera franchise for two years, said she earns $10.45 per hour, or about $21,000 per year, putting her earnings at roughly 140 percent of the federal poverty line for a couple. The median pay for a baker in the U.S. is just a touch higher, at $11.27 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the cost of VonEitzen's employer health insurance plan for a couple would swallow nearly half her earnings, so she and her husband, who's had two heart attacks, go without it. Her paycheck brings in just enough to cover the mortgage payment and utilities, but the money is so tight that they often have to forgo her husband's costly heart medications, she said.
"We are skilled bakers, and they advertise us as artisan bakers," said VonEitzen. "I've been in the restaurant industry most of my life. ... This is less money than I worked for 10 or 20 years ago."
Most fast-food jobs don't entail a formal training program like the bakers' do. Landing a job in the kitchen is seen as a considerable upgrade from manning a register, with an attendant raise of a couple bucks an hour, not to mention a more marketable skill set when a worker wants to leave. Jared Miller, a fellow baker of VonEitzen's in Michigan, says he waited a year working out front at his Panera cafe before he had a shot at being trained as a baker in the back. He jumped at the opportunity.
Given their designation as craftsmen, a number of Panera Bread bakers in Michigan decided a year and a half ago that they wanted to join a union to improve working conditions and earn something a little closer to a middle-class living. (The bakers do not work for Panera but for a Panera franchisee.)
Their effort to become the first unionized group of Panera workers in the country has led to a prolonged and ugly legal battle with their employer, Paul Saber, a major Panera franchisee and former McDonald's executive. Saber seems determined not to recognize the bakers as a union, carrying out what appears to be an aggressive anti-union campaign, judging from complaints with the federal labor board.
The percentage of U.S. workers who belong to a labor union has dropped to a historic low of 11.3 percent, including a mere 6.6 percent of the private sector, in part because traditionally unionized industries like manufacturing have shrunk. Meanwhile, restaurant chains remain a nearly union-free world. The Panera bakers' fight to unionize may shed light on what kind of future organized labor has in the modern service economy.
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Saber read the consumer trends years ago. While McDonald's has done just fine in the past decade, fast-casual chains like Panera have taken off by appealing to health-conscious diners on the go. Fast-food chains, in turn, have been forced to adjust in order to keep up with the changing times. Last year, McDonald's ended its use of "pink slime" in its hamburgers and recently vowed to use sustainable fish in its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. Burger King announced that it would start using only free-range eggs and pork.
After 17 years as a McDonald's franchisee, Saber sold his 14 golden arches locations back to the company in 2000, apparently choosing to invest instead in the up-and-coming Panera, according to a 2003 story in Businessweek. His company now operates more than 50 Paneras in California and Michigan, according to a restaurant trade publication.
"The McDonald's-type fast food isn't relevant to today's consumer," Saber told Businessweek.
But according to Dan Wood, the baker who's taken the lead for the unionizing effort in Michigan, Saber's company has imposed McDonald's-style working standards on its Panera cafes. The artisanal-branded bakers, Wood argued, aren't treated like they perform skilled jobs.
"Most of my people have no benefits," said Wood, a five-year Panera veteran and a career baker. "They have no insurance. They're making anywhere from $10.25 to $11 an hour.
"These are people who can make pastries," he added. (McDonald's employees, like Panera's front-of-the-house workers, earn closer to the minimum wage, which is $7.25 at the federal level but higher in many states.)
In his previous baking job at a mom-and-pop cafe, Wood had a better wage and health coverage through BlueCross BlueShield, he said. Back then, he had no complaints. "The union guys would leave their cards and I would laugh," Wood said.
The bakers first started whispering their grievances to one another in 2011. At the time, the Panera franchises they worked at were owned by a different company from Saber's. The bakers felt management was squeezing workers, adding to their workload while simultaneously cutting hours.
Some management practices were "arbitrary and abusive," Wood claimed. One such practice was known as "splits." Bakers were often required to work at two different cafes on the same day, but they weren't paid for the time they spent traveling between cafes or reimbursed for the miles they put on their own cars -- a not-insignificant cost for someone earning $10 an hour.
Saber's company, Bread of Life, bought the cafes in August 2011 and brought in new management, but the pro-union bakers say their problems continued. Bringing some old-school unionism to the new world of fast-casual eateries, the workers sought out the 127-year-old Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union as their representative.
"These are bakers just like I was a baker," said John Price, an international representative for the union, which recently gained national attention for its strike against Hostess shortly before the Twinkie-maker's liquidation.
Eventually, 90 percent of the Panera bakers signed cards authorizing a union election. But according to a complaint filed last year by a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that enforces labor law, Bread of Life managers allegedly violated labor law in trying to dissuade workers from joining the union. Saber was personally responsible for many of the violations, the complaint stated. Bread of Life has since settled the complaint without admitting any wrongdoing.
Among the allegations in the complaint, in the weeks leading up to the election Bread of Life told employees not to sign union authorization cards; asked employees who'd signed them to retract them; launched a website designed "to discourage support" for the union; promised workers better employee benefits if they declined to unionize; and threatened employees with "loss of benefits" if they did unionize.
The effort also included at least two required meetings with management and a consultant, who outlined the reasons why the employees didn't need a union. The bakers say the meetings were held at hotels in Kalamazoo, Mich., just before the union election, and started in the morning, right after they'd finished their overnight shifts, and lasted several hours.
According to the NLRB complaint, Saber promised workers promotions if they didn't unionize and told them he would fight the union "until his dying breath." He also said it would be "futile" for them to unionize because "he would delay the certification ... as long as possible no matter the cost."
According to bakers who attended the meetings, the pressure from Saber also included religious appeals. Well-known as a Christian, Saber has been a board member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the name Bread of Life (like another Saber holding, Manna Development) has obvious religious connotations. (The website for the Graham organization tells the story of Saber once proselytizing a friend as the pair drove together in a Ferrari during a Ronald McDonald House Charities fundraiser.)
According to the bakers, Saber said workers shouldn't unionize in part because Bread of Life is a Christian company that looks after its own.
"We had to hear about how he was a good Christian who'd take care of us so we needed to stop this union nonsense," said VonEitzen, whose version of events was corroborated by Jared Miller, another baker in attendance. "They asked us to delay the vote.
"I read the Bible regularly," VonEitzen added. "We don’t have the same Bible."
When asked about the union-busting allegations, a Panera spokesperson said the company would not comment on legal matters, but stressed that "we take our relationships with all of our associates seriously, whether they are employed by the company or a franchisee."
In a statement, Bread of Life insisted that it treats its bakers with fairness and respect.
"We have a good track record of offering competitive pay and benefits in our industry," the company said. "As we understand it, the issues that resulted in this unionization effort pre-date Bread of Life's ownership of these cafes. We remain fully committed to working within the law and treating our bakers and all associates with fairness and respect."
But the case of the Panera bakers shows just how difficult it is for workers at a restaurant chain to organize to improve conditions. Several told HuffPost they either lost work shifts or saw their employee evaluations nosedive after coming out in support of the union.
"I came into this thinking we had the right to bargain collectively," said Kyle Schilling, a baker who claims to have lost work hours due to the campaign. "They make it so that it's almost impossible. They just wear you down."
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There's nothing inherently low-wage or low-benefit about the bakers' work or even fast-food work, according to Eileen Appelbaum, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Their circumstances are largely due to the weak presence of unions or other labor advocacy groups in their broader industry, she argued. Until food and service workers have more representation, she said, low-wage and poverty jobs will continue to prevail.
"What made manufacturing jobs good jobs? Not all the skills. Unions," Appelbaum said. "If not the unions of the past, we need some employee representation. ... We have so many low-wage jobs."
Many fast-food employees seem to have tired of the stagnant wages and lack of benefits. This past November, more than a hundred fast-food workers walked off their jobs at McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King restaurants for a one-day strike in New York City, urging such chains to pay a living wage.
In 2010, a group of workers for Jimmy John's sandwich shops in Minnesota tried to unionize. The workers earned roughly the minimum wage and received no paid sick days. They narrowly lost the election by a vote of 87 to 85. Pro-union employees accused the Jimmy John's franchisee of pressuring employees to vote against the union. (Last year, a judge ordered the company to rehire workers it wrongfully dismissed. Two years after being fired, the workers are still waiting, due to appeals.)
Despite the pressure from management, the Panera workers voted 11 to 7 in favor of the union last March.
Nearly a year later, however, they still aren't recognized as a union, as Saber's company challenges the bargaining unit that the labor board determined for the election. The union election involved 18 bakers in the Western Michigan market; Bread of Life management has said the appropriate unit would have been 45 bakers. (Employers often prefer a larger bargaining unit, given that workers are less likely to know and support one another.)
"Bakers have a right to criticize our management and seek to join a union," the company told HuffPost. "Bread Of Life also has its rights in the legal process to appeal what we sincerely believe is an inappropriate unit of bakers for union representation. Use of the established legal process is not 'union-busting.'"
In interviews, the bakers all described the process as exhausting and dispiriting, taking tolls both financial and emotional.
"At this point in time, I see the guy's just throwing a fit because he doesn’t want a union, and he goes and spends a bunch of money because he wants to get his way," said Jared Miller, 25, who had taken the job to pay his way through school. "We didn’t want extreme things. We wanted, like, health care. Normal basics."
"All the money they’ve spent on this," Miller added, "it could have covered a union contract for three or four years. It's nuts."
After the election, Bread of Life filed a charge of its own against the bakers union, claiming that several bakers, VonEitzen and Wood in particular, had tried to pressure employees into supporting the union. The charge alleged there'd been an "overall environment of anger and intimidation" emanating from pro-union bakers.
The labor board's regional director dismissed the charge, saying there was "no substantive merit to the allegations." She also chided Bread of Life for not fully cooperating with the very investigation the company requested.
The regional director has since filed another complaint against Bread of Life, however, accusing the company of "refusing" to bargain in good faith and "coercing" employees, among other charges.
Such litigation can drag on for years, making it an effective delay tactic for employers fending off unionization efforts. In an industry where low pay and high turnover are standard, the prospects for unionization tend to dim as workers leave for new jobs or tire of the battle with management as they try to make ends meet.
Price, the union representative, said labor law is tilted too far in the favor of employers, making it nearly impossible to unionize workers in an industry like restaurants where organized labor has little presence.
"This is the problem with the NLRB -- they have no enforcement powers whatsoever, and most attorneys know it," Price said. "I tell people what the law is, 'This is your right.' After I tell them that, I say, 'They're going to break every one of those laws, keep in mind.'"
The Panera bakers claimed management has retaliated against them for their pro-union stances. Schilling said he lost work hours after supporting the union. Under the settlement over the earlier labor board complaint, Bread of Life agreed to give Schilling roughly $500 in backpay. But Schilling claimed the lost shifts will cost him hundreds, if not thousands, more than that.
Others claimed they've taken a hit on their evaluations. The bakers receive semi-annual grades for their work known as "calibrations," which help determine what kind of bonus they might get. A succession of failing grades is cause for termination.
VonEitzen alleged that her calibrations dipped after the unionization effort became public. So, too, did Matt Motsinger, a former Panera baker who was pro-union.
"Somehow, I went from the best kind of baker to the worst," Motsinger said.
Motsinger himself shows how management has the upper hand in a drawn-out union fight. He left Panera last year, after the union election, when he realized he'd developed tendonitis in his right arm, an ailment he assumes came from hours of handling dough every day, he said. Since he didn't have health insurance, he said he decided to leave before the condition became worse.
"I had planned on staying with the company at least as a part-timer until the whole [unionization] process was over," Motsinger said. "I was there from the beginning. But at the same time, I couldn't do it anymore."
With the bakers' case on appeal, Michigan became the 24th "right-to-work" state in the nation, when Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and the GOP-controlled legislature fast-tracked the anti-union measures into law in December. Such laws forbid contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf, thereby weakening organized labor's clout. The law prompted massive and emotional protests at the state capitol, about an hour from the Panera bakers' homes.
"The climate is very anti-union," Wood said. "Even my own family gives me grief. But am I asking for a BMW? No. I'm asking for a schedule to be posted on time, to get some time off."
Wood and his fellow bakers launched a website documenting their efforts, titled Panera Bakers Unite. Sprinkled between developments on their case are sharply written posts about income inequality and the shrinking middle class in America. Wood said he's received emails from other bakers around the country who are facing the same challenges in work and life. The union drive has become a job unto itself, he said, and he doesn't plan to give it up anytime soon.
"I don’t want to hurt the company," Wood said. "I just want us to be recognized for what we are: the engine. You can't buy anything from a Panera that we don’t touch."
This story appears in Issue 39 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 8.