Santa Rosa, California is exactly the kind of place where you’d expect to find the heart of a natural foods empire. It is, in several senses, green. An hour’s drive north of San Francisco, the largest city in California’s Wine Country is surrounded by state parks in the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Sonoma from Napa Valley. Dating back to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), generations of Hollywood filmmakers have chosen Santa Rosa to stand in for idyllic small-town America on screen. The city government declared a “Climate Emergency” in 2020 and now blitzes citizens with a plethora of options for reducing household emissions. A museum and library honors the work of the city’s most celebrated long-term resident, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. It is too good to be true.
Amy’s Kitchen fits right in. The nation’s largest manufacturer of organic vegetarian frozen meals, Amy’s has worked hard to cultivate a homey, friendly image — a small business scaled up. The company touts its status as a certified “B Corp,” a marketing gimmick for organizations that meet certain standards on sustainability, corporate transparency, and so on, and want to broadcast their commitment to “doing well by doing good.” Its founders met on a spiritual retreat in India in the late 1970s, and once the frozen pot pie money started rolling in, they helped to establish Sonoma County’s official outpost for the Indian new religious movement Science of the Soul (Radha Soami Satsang Beas). If you were to close your eyes and imagine the sort of operation that would thrive on the Northern California coast, you’d probably picture something like Amy’s.
Santa Rosa’s chief asset for Amy’s, however, is neither its small-town charm nor its eco-friendly ethos. It is its sizable population of low-income immigrant workers, concentrated on the city’s west side and primarily hailing from Mexico. Women from this community comprise the overwhelming majority of the workforce at Amy’s two Santa Rosa plants, the anchor of its manufacturing operations for over two decades. And they report treatment that flies in the face of the progressive values that Amy’s touts in its public branding: low pay, meager benefits, grueling working conditions, lax safety protections, and a culture of surveillance and intimidation that is designed to discourage these precarious workers from organizing to demand better.
Like many corporations today — especially, but by no means exclusively, those that are privately owned — Amy’s likes to imagine itself as a “family.” The company is named after the daughter of cofounders Andy and Rachel Berliner, and the official narrative depicts the venture as the natural outgrowth of the couple’s quest to obtain high-quality vegetarian meals for Amy when she was a child. “We still make our food like we’re in our personal kitchen,” the Berliners claim, “it’s just on a bigger scale.” If that’s the case, one shudders to imagine what goes on in the Berliners’ personal kitchen.
When I ask Maricruz Meza how work at Amy’s measures up to the company’s family-friendly public image, she lets out a sardonic laugh. “I would never treat my family like this,” she says.
Meza has been working in the production department at Amy’s Santa Rosa Northpoint Parkway plant for eight years, currently as a line lead. Like many women she knows who’ve moved from Mexico to Santa Rosa, she sought employment at Amy’s when she first arrived — “that’s where they take us, so that’s where we go,” as one of her coworkers put it. When she was hired, a shift leader told her that the company was eager to reward its employees for good work. “If you try to learn more things, we’ll give you raises,” he said. Meza applied herself, sought to learn as much as she could about plant operations, and worked diligently for years. She was promoted, but the much-hyped raises rarely amounted to more than a few cents on her hourly wage. The biggest bump she’s seen in her time at Amy’s came last year, when women in the production department organized a work stoppage and won a two-dollar increase to their minimum pay — for Meza, from $20 to $22 an hour.
Each biweekly pay period, Meza has to fork over $200 to pay the premium on the company health insurance plan. Even so, she’s amassed significant bills caring for herself and her children. Collections agencies have started to harass her, and her credit score has plummeted. She presented her bills to Amy’s H.R. as evidence of the inadequacy of the company’s healthcare benefits, and brought the issue up in a company Q&A with Andy Berliner. He told her that he’d also had medical procedures that weren’t covered by insurance, and advised her to do what he’d done: pay in cash and then petition the insurance provider for reimbursement. Meza was floored. Somehow Berliner didn’t understand that, precisely because of his company’s stingy compensation and benefits, she did not have thousands of dollars lying around to pay medical bills at a moment’s notice.
Healthcare costs are on everyone’s mind at the Amy’s facility. Workers report days filled with grindingly repetitive movements and a backbreaking pace of work. “I know what it’s like to work in pain,” Irene Mendoza says. She’s been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury brought on by the heavy lifting required at the plant. Such work would ideally be performed by tall, strong men, Mendoza believes, but men don’t last long at Amy’s — they aren’t paid well enough to justify the work’s physical toll. Mendoza reports that she’s seen men quit just a few hours into their first day on the job, once they see firsthand what Amy’s demands from its employees.
Mendoza says that her attempts to secure the accommodation she needs to rehab her injury have been stymied by a managerial culture of favoritism, buck-passing, and inflexibility. When Amy’s workers are injured on the production line, they often get reassigned to clean the dining area at the plant. But the duration of these custodial stints is entirely arbitrary. Mendoza was sent back to the burrito line after only two weeks, still in pain, while a coworker has been on cafeteria duty for two years — because, Mendoza says, she is from El Salvador rather than from Mexico, and her general manager treats his fellow Salvadorans preferentially. Mendoza ended up having to miss work for a doctor’s appointment. Human Resources told her not to worry about repercussions, but when Mendoza returned, she found she had been given the most dreaded sanction of all at the Amy’s plant: points.
The points system is the plant’s all-in-one disciplinary regime. Workers accrue points for tardiness or missed work, even if they’ve notified management in advance: a half point if you’re five minutes late, a full point for 30 minutes, two points for being two hours late without advance notice or for missing a shift entirely after exhausting one’s paid time off (with or without notice), and six points for missing work without calling in. Mendoza has four hours of paid time off during each biweekly pay period, after which she gets slapped with points. For years, workers who accrued nine points were automatically terminated. That threshold was eventually raised to fifteen points, because so many people were blowing past the nine-point mark.
Mendoza wasn’t surprised when she tested positive for Covid, because a lot of her coworkers had been coming in to work while visibly symptomatic. The company’s response was a mixture of denial and blame. Mendoza was told that she couldn’t have picked up the virus at the facility, even though no one else in her household had the virus. Managers began publicly posting the names of workers who’d gotten sick, as if it were their fault. Workers who came down with Covid were still given points if they’d already used up their sick leave, and would presumably be fired if they were to exceed the fifteen-point threshold. This ruthless quantitative logic embodies the single-minded focus on maximizing productivity that governs every aspect of operations at the Amy’s plant.
In the age of the so-called Great Resignation, Americans have gotten more comfortable identifying the downsides of “friendly” workplaces. “Work won’t love you back,” according to the slogan popularized by labor journalist Sarah Jaffe. In fact, as a new generation of anti-capitalist influencers and self-help writers have recently insisted, “loving” work — or more precisely, buying into the ideology that your work isn’t really work at all, but a fun form of self-expression or a noble, all-consuming mission — predisposes you to “burnout,” the characteristic affliction of the contemporary white-collar (or “no-collar”) workforce. You might think you want a job that isn’t “just a job,” but when your work becomes your life, both tend to suffer — as allegorized to great acclaim through the pitiable “innie” workers of the Apple TV show Severance, who have no memory of their lives outside of the workplace. The price of transcending the cold instrumentalism of the imagined gray-flannel-suited workplace of yore appears to be an epidemic of emotional depletion.
It’s of course worth cheering on professional workers who refuse to be fooled by a boss’s arsenal of feel-good tricks. Such disillusion, though, needn’t always manifest in individualistic forms of refusal — like resigning — but can also give impetus to collective labor organizing. In recent years, unions of graduate students, tech workers, and media employees have proliferated rapidly, telling their higher-ups where they can stuff their daily meditation breaks, team-building exercises, and feel-good organizational “values.” Workplace friendliness, however, does not just create docile workers unwise to their exploitation, or encourage overcommitment that leads to burnout. It also masks the continuing reliance of supposedly progressive companies like Amy’s Kitchen on an invisible army of hyperexploited workers who are shut out from even the poisonous pleasures of a “humane” work environment.
Workplace friendliness is easy to emulate but difficult to scale. The idea that employees are motivated by the feeling that their work represents something more — a family, a team, a vocation, a mission — is both old and intuitive. As the historian Stefan Link has argued, even Henry Ford, the icon of assembly-line dehumanization, worked hard to make his company “charismatic,” bound together by a spirit of informality, intensity, and shared devotion to core principles. But, like gravity, the force of a charismatic executive’s personality diminishes with distance. Managers who worked personally with Ford on a daily basis were more readily energized by his sense of the company’s mission than were the thousands of anonymous laborers who manned the assembly lines. And as Ford recognized with his famous “five dollar day” initiative, it’s hard to make workers feel as if they’re part of the family without compensating them generously — but a profit-maximizing organization can only let its wage bill run up so high.
The consequence is that companies that aspire to treat their workers well — to make them feel like valued partners rather than subordinates — might succeed at first, but typically encounter a limit to their beneficence as they grow. After this limit is reached, these companies tend to segment their workforces into separate tiers: a top tier that continues to experience the tight-knit “family” environment of the company’s early days, and a bottom tier that is subject to all the familiar pressures of capitalist labor management: long hours and low pay; deskilling and mechanization; speedups and “sweating” techniques intended to extract every last bit of productivity from the work day.
Which workers get slotted into each tier is often a function of familiar axes of workplace discrimination, especially race, gender, and educational attainment. This means employees are socially segregated as well as segmented, exacerbating the invisibility to which self-conceived “progressive” businesses must seek to consign the bottom tiers of their workforces. A divided staff is easily conquerable. But the recent wave of labor activism among professional employees at friendly workplaces too often has left this internal hierarchy unquestioned — running the risk that the hard-won gains of professional unions will become just another benefit denied to those lower-paid, more precarious workers toiling in the shadows.
The original ancestors of Amy’s Kitchen were the natural foods businesses that sprung up during the heyday of the 1960s counterculture. The industry was a key site of what historian Joshua Clark Davis calls “activist entrepreneurship,” the consequence of the sympathetic engagement of beatniks and hippies with the paeans to entrepreneurship that abounded in the postwar decades. There were tracts of social criticism like William H. Whyte, Jr.’s The Organization Man (1956), which blamed the soul-crushing bureaucracy of midcentury corporate offices on a shift “from the entrepreneurial to the administrative” mindset. There were bestselling treatises on philosophy and economics like E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973), which praised entrepreneurship as the embodiment of “creative freedom.” Perhaps most significantly, there were do-it-yourself resources like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, which peddled Ayn Rand novels alongside tools for homesteaders and practical advice for the aspiring dropout businessman.
Perhaps the most iconic countercultural small business was also a pioneer in the history of the natural foods industry: Boston’s Erewhon Trading Company. Erewhon was founded in 1966 by Aveline and Michio Kushi, Japanese immigrants and leaders in the Zen-influenced “macrobiotic diet” movement. Erewhon initially sold specialty macrobiotic ingredients out of a single storefront on Newbury Street to a small community of about 200 regular customers. In 1967, the Kushis handed over management of the store to one of its first employees, a charismatic 21-year-old Californian named Paul Hawken. Hawken incorporated Erewhon the following year and became its first CEO, presiding over a staff of just six people — all macrobiotics true believers. Hawken and the Erewhon team hoped that their work at the store would honor the Buddhist principle of “Right Livelihood,” as advocated by Schumacher and other countercultural intellectuals. Unlike the offices of the Organization Man, Erewhon would be a place where people could do work that they loved — “no rules, no by-laws or regulations,” as Hawken put it.
The result was exactly the sort of high-intensity, intimate workplace “family” that has come under fire from today’s critics of burnout culture. “A sort of giddy optimism pervaded the new store, abetted by all of us working twelve to twenty hours a day,” Hawken later wrote. “All of us felt like passengers on a very fast vehicle bound for unknown places.” The final destination may have indeed been unknown, but the first stop was expansion. Hawken moved the business into a more upscale storefront in 1968. The company also purchased a warehouse and began wholesaling to regional buyers. Soon Hawken was able to replicate the business model in L.A. By 1973, Erewhon had 15,000 retail customers and was selling wholesale to almost 300,000 more.
That year, Hawken did, in fact, burn out. He resigned as CEO, sold his ownership share, and moved to a utopian community in northern Scotland. (The book he wrote about his sojourn inaugurated a long career as a writer on environmentalism and business.) He left behind a small leadership team that worked at the storefronts and was as committed as ever to the company’s New Age vision — as well as a new workforce of about 65 people who labored on an hourly basis cooking prepared food in the company’s kitchens, moving merchandise around its warehouses, and driving the trucks that brought Erewhon products to wholesale customers in New England and Southern California.
This shadow workforce was increasingly disgruntled. The dominoes began to fall in 1975, when workers at Westbrae Foods in Berkeley formed the Alternative Food Workers Alliance, the first union in the natural foods sector. The next year, Erewhon’s back-of-house staff formed a “caucus” to present mounting complaints to management. The response would prove characteristic of management at countercultural and “progressive” companies when confronted with organizing threats: Erewhon attempted to make members of its shadow workforce feel that they were part of the family after all. Generous raises were announced and the benefits package was sweetened. Promises were made. The Kushis and other influential members of the Erewhon community insisted that a union would only drive a further wedge between workers and the company. By unionizing, workers would expel themselves from the Erewhon family for good.
But the trust deficit was already too substantial. The family rhetoric struck most workers as protesting too much. On April 27, 1979, workers in the production, trucking, shipping, and kitchen departments voted by a 42-19 margin to join a union affiliated with Local 925 of the Services Employees International Union (SEIU). The news sent shock waves through the natural foods community. The New Age Journal reported that the unionizing workers felt that “behind Erewhon’s New Age image lay the reality of an uncaring and unresponsive management willing to exploit them just as any ‘straight’ business might.” Erewhon had traversed a path “from alternative to big business,” according to the magazine. It would not be the last “alternative” company to do so.
The biggest business that started as an “alternative” is arguably Apple Inc., now the sixth largest corporation in the world by revenue. Like Andy and Rachel Berliner, Steve Jobs started his company after a spiritual sojourn in India in the 1970s. He was a devoted believer in the countercultural merits of entrepreneurship, as espoused by Brand, Schumacher, and others. Jobs and his less business-minded cofounder Steve Wozniak both conceptualized Apple Computers as a challenge to the domination of the computer industry by bureaucratic monoliths like IBM. “If, for some reason, we make some giant mistakes and IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about twenty years,” Jobs remarked in 1985.
As director of Apple’s Macintosh project — the company’s quest to create a low-cost P.C. with a graphical user interface — Jobs spent the early 1980s helping to create the template for the now-familiar Silicon Valley “friendly workplace.” The Mac team worked in a gorgeous office on the Apple campus that was decked out with video games, a high-end stereo system, and other luxury items that were supposed to illustrate Jobs’s devotion to design and craftsmanship. Every six months, Jobs took the team to resorts on the California coast, where updates on project progress blended into beach parties and hot tub hangouts. It may have been fun, but it was all-consuming, too. For the Mac team, the expectation was that work was life. Jobs later claimed that “every single one” of the Mac developers would testify that the intense work environment was “worth the pain” — a sentiment certainly shared, despite later complaints of burnout, by those Mac employees who printed shirts that read “90 Hours A Week And Loving It!”
The workers who actually assembled the Macintosh, on the other hand, were decidedly not loving it. Like Amy’s enchiladas and mac-and-cheese bowls, the Macintosh was made by a non-union workforce composed predominantly of immigrant women working for low pay in physically hazardous conditions. Jobs was characteristically fanatical about the cleanliness of the Mac factory, but he only cared about cleanliness so long as it benefited the silicon chips: “cleaning” electronic parts with the highly toxic chemical ethylene glycol was in fact one of the most dangerous parts of working in Silicon Valley factories, as the journalist Dennis Hayes reported in a 1989 exposé. It was even more dangerous for subcontracted workers tasked with disposal of the toxic waste accumulated at computer factories.
Among the middle-class Anglos who held sway in Bay Area politics, the toxic waste problem eventually began to galvanize hostility to Silicon Valley factories — not out of any solidaristic impulse towards low-wage immigrant workers, but due principally to environmental health concerns. Seeing an opportunity to refurbish their green, postindustrial image while also cutting wage costs, many Silicon Valley companies outsourced their manufacturing activities to overseas subcontractors in the 1980s and 1990s. Apple products were, as the phrase emblazoned on nearly every product explained, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Today that assembly is orchestrated primarily by the Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn, notorious internationally for a spate of eleven worker suicides in the first half of 2010.
Outsourcing is perhaps the most straightforward mechanism for companies seeking to build a firewall between their shadow workforce and their “real” employees, who are more likely to count as part of the corporate “family” and have access to all the perks of the friendly workplace. But as Amy’s Kitchen workers have learned all too well, if a company’s progressive branding is robust enough, it can still employ invisible workers on its own payroll, ensuring that its consumers can feel good about their organic, vegetarian purchase without having to contemplate the rather old-fashioned style of labor exploitation the company depends on.
But not forever. In the summer of 2021, fed up with increasingly dangerous working conditions during the pandemic, Amy’s workers in Santa Rosa began collaborating with organizers from Teamsters Local 665 to build a union drive at the two plants. (Amy’s also has production facilities in Oregon and Idaho, but Santa Rosa workers reported that it has been difficult to develop the long-distance relationships that would be necessary to mount a united organizing effort across state lines.) In January, an NBC News investigation reported on workplace safety complaints and the nascent unionization effort at Amy’s. Shortly afterwards, Teamsters representatives filed an OSHA complaint on behalf of Santa Rosa worker Cecilia Luna Ojeda. With the workers’ blessing, a variety of independent food justice organizations have launched a boycott campaign pitched at the company’s progressive clientele.
Amy’s has responded to the union drive with a two-step dance common at “family” companies with shadow workforces. The first step is to rally the troops in Santa Rosa with encomiums to the much-ballyhooed “Amy’s culture.” The mistreatment workers have described to the media is “not something that is a part of the culture that Andy and Rachel have built at Amy’s,” general counsel Mike Resch told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. (Amy’s did not respond to an invitation to comment for this article.) In February, Amy’s orchestrated a rally of its supporters and anti-union employees, all clad in green T-shirts, outside the Santa Rosa Northpoint plant. Meza and Mendoza told me that every Friday workers are encouraged to wear green shirts and face masks to show their support for the company.
The second step is an intimidation campaign conducted out of public view, indistinguishable from the playbooks of less friendly anti-union companies. Amy’s has made use of the full union-busting arsenal, according to Santa Rosa workers. At captive audience meetings, workers have been warned repeatedly that the company won’t give in to union demands to reform the points system out of principle and that the boycott, if successful, will run the risk of layoffs. Anti-union “consultants” walk the shop floor and talk with workers on the line, warning them that the Teamsters are just after their dues money and don’t care about their well-being. Meza and Mendoza said that they are routinely separated by management if they try to talk to each other at work, even about non-union matters. “They want us to come into work with our heads down,” Meza said.
The goal of the two-step strategy is to reframe the experience of expulsion from the company’s imagined community. Amy’s wants its production workers to feel that the status of second-class corporate citizen is something that pro-union workers choose for themselves by adopting an antagonistic posture toward the company, rather than something inflicted on production workers by management in order to maximize the company’s profits. The organizers remain optimistic about the prospects of the union campaign, but they have noticed signs that this strategy is already paying off for Amy’s, with fearful workers conspicuously performing their allegiance to the company for managers. According to a coworker, Meza reported, another worker spoke up and asked the general manager why he couldn’t just end the union effort in one fell swoop by firing all its supporters.
This kind of manufactured division is all too common in workplaces where the responsibility of organizing falls to the most precarious employees. When involvement with a unionization campaign becomes a mark of failure — failure to move up in a business’s internal labor market; failure to belong to a company’s “family” — the drive’s momentum almost always slows. No one wants to be a loser. And workers are often willing to forgo the material benefits they might achieve through organizing in order to prove that they aren’t the sort of loser who needs to resort to unionization.
But it’s harder to divide and conquer when top-tier workers, fed up with the unique pathologies of their “friendlier” work environments, embrace collective action in their workplaces, rather than simply resigning or embracing an individualistic “antiwork” ethos. If professionals can imagine themselves as part of a collective that encompasses the shadow workforces that make their own jobs possible — the people who build the products they design and distribute them to consumers; the people who clean their offices, sort their mail, and serve them lunch — they can help form a unified front against which upper management’s union-busting initiatives will be more likely to fail.
The dream of such wall-to-wall solidarity is not new. The white-collar labor movement first flickered to life during the recession years that followed World War I, which saw the rapid but brief growth of unions of clerks, accountants, bookkeepers, and stenographers. Similar surges materialized during the Great Depression and the economic turbulence of the late ’60s and early ’70s. During an epochal strike in 1969-1970, General Electric offered salaried employees a $10 bonus for every strikebreaker they recruited. Not only did the offer find few takers, but white-collar G.E. workers leaked the offer to the press and launched a fundraising drive to support the strikers.
In the last few decades, this sort of concrete act of support from white-collar workers has been frustratingly rare. The pandemic emergency, however, has jolted the consciences of a wider range of unions of “inessential” workers toward cross-tier solidarity. My own union, the Harvard Graduate Students Union (United Auto Workers 5118), organized science students in the early days of Covid to donate personal protective equipment from their labs to custodial workers at Harvard who were miserably under-equipped by the university administration; it also held rallies with the dining hall workers’ union to protest layoffs, and compared notes with the bargaining team of the custodial workers’ union when our contracts came up for renewal at the same time. In turn, every other campus union showed up to the picket line when HGSU-UAW went on strike in October 2021.
In my wildest flights of fancy, I imagine the future of unions like the UAW — old-fashioned unions now increasingly committed to organizing workers without regard for what color collar they wear — and I see a strange, fragmented version of the old hope of the IWW, “One Big Union,” reappearing on the horizon of the labor movement in the U.S. Organizing the American shadow workforce and overcoming the segmentation endemic to American labor markets will require us to reinvent industrial unionism for our supposedly postindustrial age. If the contours of such a movement remain blurry, one thing is for sure: the “values” of supposedly progressive entrepreneurs, from Erewhon to Amy’s, aren’t worth the paper their press releases are printed on. To paraphrase Trotsky on war: you might not care about the imperatives of capitalist production, but they certainly care about you.
Interviews with Irene Mendoza and Maricruz Meza conducted in Spanish with an interpreter.
Erik Baker is a Lecturer on the History of Science at Harvard University and an associate editor at The Drift. His first book, Make Your Own Job: The Entrepreneurial Work Ethic in Modern America, will appear next year from Harvard University Press.