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She Wolf Bakery’s Workers Want Your Loaves to be Union-Made

The team behind the NYC farmers market mainstay are seeking representation from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

12:24 PM EST on January 22, 2024

Workers at the She Wolf Bakery tent in Union Square, New York.
(Hell Gate)

From the outside looking in, it might seem like people push for unions because they hate the place where they work. But oftentimes, a union drive means just the opposite—that workers care enough about their job to want to change it for the better. That's how Thomasin Alter, a baker who's worked in the food service industry for the past 12 years, told Hell Gate she feels about her work at She Wolf Bakery. "There are a lot of bread bakeries in New York, but there aren't a lot that do it the way that She Wolf does, if any," she said. "At a high volume, but still doing it all by hand, really—everyone being so in touch with the dough, and so in touch with the whole process."

On Thursday, Alter and other She Wolf employees gathered at the company's wholesale bakery in Greenpoint to formally announce to management that they were filing with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. 

"Bakers and bakery workers are skilled workers that are so profoundly exploited on a systemic level, the same way that food workers in all food industries are exploited," Kira Zimmerman, a She Wolf baker and another member of the union's organizing committee, said. "I think that there could not be a better time than right now for bakers to be joining [the labor movement]."

She Wolf market worker Fred wearing a 'Union Yes!' pin on the job. (Hell Gate)

She Wolf Bakery began as a bread-making operation in the kitchen of the Italian hotspot Roman's in Fort Greene in 2009 and expanded into a discrete operation in 2013, part of the Marlow Collective Hospitality Group. Now, bakers make sourdough bread in Greenpoint while porters maintain the space, and wholesale drivers and market staff ferry the bread to Marlow Collective eateries like Diner and Achilles Heel, and greenmarkets across Brooklyn and Manhattan, like the ones in Union Square and McCarren Park. Twenty-three of these employees will be eligible for membership in the She Wolf Union, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is slated to represent She Wolf workers should they vote to unionize.

A spokesperson for the Marlow Collective told Hell Gate that "we are very proud of the work we do together and recognize and respect our employees' fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively." They added, "We want to ensure that this is in fact their desire and anticipate negotiating in good faith with the Union if this is their decision."

The workers Hell Gate spoke with said they were extremely confident in their desire to organize—for a few across-the-board reasons. The genesis of the union effort was a series of conversations in 2023, during which She Wolf employees compared notes and found they had problems in common, like concerns about pay equity, the cost of employer-provided healthcare, and wages that were capped at $22.50 an hour for most positions in the bakery. "The idea that people who have given seven-plus years of their lives to a place max out at $22.50 is wild," Alter said.

(Hell Gate)

They also found issues more specific to their work as bakers and wholesalers. "We're expected to work full steam ahead in conditions like extreme heat, extreme cold, flooding, smoke," Zimmerman said. They recalled talking to coworkers who were stranded in Park Slope during the heavy rainfall that choked up the city's transit systems last September. "They were stranded at a worksite without ways of getting home or back [to] the bakery, because there was no planning ahead for hazardous conditions," Zimmerman said. Alter also said she's raised concerns about the oven room in She Wolf's Greenpoint bakery, which she said "isn't climate-controlled at all," making for sweltering conditions, especially in the summer.

Abhay Brennan-Torell, a She Wolf wholesale driver and market worker who's also on the union's organizing committee, said they regularly wear seven layers of clothing when they head out to work in the winter, knowing that they'll be standing outside all day, hoping to sell bread even when the weather dips below freezing. "We have sides for the tents [we sell bread from] and we have heaters, but even with all that, the cold penetrates," they said. "And those days are very slow. We're just out there, not moving around very much." 

Brennan-Torell said management gives market workers a stipend for winter clothing—but given the wages at She Wolf, workers find that money often ends up going elsewhere, making the gesture feel more "symbolic" than actually useful. "We're thinking about paying rent, buying groceries—and that just takes priority," they said. 

Once She Wolf's workers discovered their shared concerns, they got in touch with Brandworkers, a NYC-based nonprofit that helps guide union efforts for food production workers in New York and New Jersey. From there, they were put into contact with RWDSU, the same union that represents GrowNYC workers—the organization that runs many of the greenmarkets where She Wolf Bakery sells its loaves. 

Alter said she hopes that formally unionizing will allow She Wolf's workers to propose their own solutions to the problems they experience—like set temperatures at which workers won't be required to work in greenmarkets—and will also encourage upper management to take the issues she and her coworkers raise more seriously. "Most attempts to bring up [concerns] can be met with an attitude of, well, this is the job," she said. "In the food industry in general, you always need to be proving your grit—and it's just like, I'm so over that."

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