Franklin Street Bakery workers Marco Tacuri and Dena Lagace say their stagnant wages prevent them from purchasing health insurance. Tacuri has a pending National Labor Relations Board case against the bakery, alleging he was fired for his union activity just weeks before their baby was born.

Colin Michael Simmons

At this stage in his life, Wayne Kostroski can legitimately claim to be a self-made man.

The silver-haired, 66-year-old restaurateur from Edina runs Cuisine Concepts, which founded time-honored Minneapolis eateries Tejas, Goodfellows, and Bar Abilene, and runs a wholesale bakery that supplies stores and restaurants in 17 states. The 24-hour bread factory, built on the former site of a crime-ridden Super America, has provided hundreds of jobs to Ventura Village.

Kostroski has chaired the Edina Chamber of Commerce. He’s volunteered at food banks and lectured business students on hard-fought lessons from the entrepreneurial battlefield.

In 1992 when the Super Bowl first came to Minneapolis, it was Kostroski who came up with the “Taste of the NFL.” It would be a red-carpet benefit catered by A-list chefs, attended by celebrities, with proceeds going to food shelves across the nation. This “party with a purpose” made $100,000 in its first year. Revenues surged into the many millions over the next three decades.

When Kostroski was named the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year in 2010, it seemed like a cumulative ruling that he was not just a self-made man, but almost a saint.

Yet that reputation came with an asterisk. No one bothered to ask the workers at his bread factory.

Angel Camacho has been working for Franklin Street Bakery for nearly half his life. He has been pushing his co-workers to unionize for better pay and treatment.

Colin Michael Simmons

Company boy

The sweet, malty aroma of fresh bread emanates from the gently humming warehouse that squats at the corner of East Franklin and South 11th avenues. It penetrates the entire neighborhood, wafting like a lazy fog.

At night, when the lights are on inside Franklin Street Bakery, second-shift silhouettes come to life like shadow play. Through colossal window decals advertising luscious-looking sandwiches, workers in white smocks and hairnets sort buns along winding assembly lines and scuttle troughs of leftover dough across the floor.

Angel Camacho, one of the youngest workers at 30, is changing parts on the machine that forms hot dog and hoagie buns. He’s pulling bread racks from the ovens and running them to the cooling fans, helping people move pallets.

Camacho grew up one of eight children in a small country town pinched between Guatemala’s western highlands and its Pacific coast. At 16, he put school aside to help his father plant corn and sesame on rented farmland.

All his life he’d heard fables of the American dream. An older brother lived in Minnesota, flipping burgers at an airport McDonald’s. When that brother called home with contacts for a coyote, a smuggler who would bring Camacho to the United States, Camacho paid $4,000 for fare to the desert border between Mexico and Arizona, which he crossed on foot by starlight in the silent company of 30 strangers.

He had his picture taken for a fake ID in a warehouse in California, then boarded a plane for Minneapolis. Camacho soon found work at the New Delhi restaurant on Nicollet and enrolled at South High School. But within a year his brother returned to Guatemala, New Delhi closed, and—left alone to find his fortune—he quit school and knocked at Franklin Street Bakery. They put him to work loading cases of bread on pallets.

Over the next 10 years, he transitioned through every department, learning how to operate the machinery that gave life to bread.

Three years ago, Camacho was carrying a 45-pound box of plastic on his shoulder when he slipped on a sheet of dust coating the concrete floor. The box tumbled down his right arm. He heard a violent pop, felt a flash of pain. He could no longer lift the arm up to his shoulder.

The cartilage surrounding his shoulder socket had torn, leaving Camacho disabled. Months later he underwent surgery, spent seven weeks out of commission, and returned to work while undergoing physical therapy to regain strength and movement.

To managers, it was as if his doctor’s restrictions meant nothing, he says. They reassigned him to scouring burnt bread racks with steel wool, a task requiring the pulverizing force of his injured arm.

Since he was hurt on the job, Camacho was owed workers comp, but the bakery wavered on promises to pay his mounting hospital bills. He had to retain a lawyer to get his due.

Many rounds of physical therapy later, Camacho still has not regained his full range of motion. Handicapped at a young age, his wages have been frozen since his injury. Camacho says he has no doubt that his bosses would leap at any chance to discard him for a more able-bodied hire. It’s the bakery’s modus operandi, he says.

The disposable worker

For two years, the workers of Franklin Street Bakery have been trying to form a union with the power to remedy what they describe as a miserly workplace culture rife with danger and disrespect. Interviews with employees and research compiled by the Bakery and Confectionary Union both claim that 20 industrial ovens running around the clock would cause the interior of the Franklin Street Bakery to exceed 100 degrees in the summer months. Water isn’t allowed in working areas, and supervisors’ expressions turn dour the more employees ask for permission to take water and bathroom breaks, workers claim.

Wayne Kostroski has built an august reputation for himself as a businessman with a big heart. Twenty five years ago, restaurateur Wayne Kostroski had the idea to partner with the Super Bowl as a way to raise money for hunger relief. The Taste of the NFL has grown exponentially since he began the event the previous time the Super Bowl was held in Minneapolis. He was photographed at Second Harvest Heartland’s Golden Valley location Tuesday afternoon, January 23, 2018.

Multiple employees say the bakery is a disaster in waiting. They would faint from heat stroke, according to the bakers union. OSHA logs show they’ve trapped limbs in conveyer belts and strained their backs heaving pans and pallets across wet floors smeared with dough.

While supervisors barked to move faster and push harder, workers have sliced their arms changing blades on machines, and run each other over pushing racks full of bread pans stacked too high and too wide to see around, breaking bones and crushing fingers, according to the logs.

(Kostroski and his partner, Mark Haugen, dismiss the workers’ allegations as “unfounded” and “without merit.” But they wouldn’t specify which ones, and chose to answer only limited questions about the bakery’s practices by email. Neither responded to repeated requests for a full interview.)

When someone is injured, workers and their attorney Steve Teplinsky say they’re steered to company doctors known for discharging patients with findings that minimize their pain. To obtain full workers comp, they’ve learned to consult their own doctors and hire lawyers.

There are other problems boiling beneath the bakery’s surface. Sedentary wages—these days starting at $11 an hour—prevent many veteran employees from buying health insurance. The bakers union says an arbitrarily enforced attendance log is particularly punishing to single mothers who get to work a few minutes late or leave early to pick up their children.

Workers have no sick time —only PTO— so people end up having to report for duty even when they’re ill, workers complain. And if they are so flagrantly contagious that the bakery sends them home, they still get docked attendance points that could eventually be used to fire them.

Unionizing, they came to believe, was their only hope.

Bakery workers Angel Camacho (left) and Ned Neterval (right) have both been injured on the job, and want safer working conditions.

They’d tried once before, back in 2004, when Franklin Street’s workforce was nearly all Latino, paid around $6 an hour. Employees reached out to Bakery and Confectionery Union Local 22. Franklin Street fought back.

Workers held a vote and elected not to form a union. Local 22 filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that managers interrogated workers and threatened to punish disloyalty with calls to Immigration. Those complaints were eventually withdrawn when workers were unwilling to pursue the charges, an organizer said at the time.

A decade later, about half of the workforce was unceremoniously shown the door after Immigration audited the bakery’s records and found discrepancies in employees’ documents. By law, Franklin Street had to give workers reasonable time to correct their paperwork. Instead the bakery had them work overtime, producing excess inventory while training a new crop of temps, according to employees including Camacho, who had by then obtained permanent resident status.

Without notice, managers then corralled workers in the middle of a night shift to declare that those without legal documents need not return to work, recalls Brian Payne of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, an immigrant advocacy group. Employees on subsequent shifts were barred from entrance. When the bakery withheld their final paychecks, about 30 fired workers demonstrated on Franklin Avenue, he says.

While workplace raids are not uncommon, employers are rarely held responsible for undocumented staff. The U.S. Attorney’s Office of Minnesota hasn’t prosecuted a single such case in recent memory. Though it’s illegal for employers to “knowingly” hire undocumented workers, bosses aren’t expected to be document experts.

That out clause allows companies to simultaneously plead ignorance to their employees’ status, while equipping them with the ultimate weapon to subdue any crusade for better conditions—the threat of deportation.

But the mass firing of Latino workers brought natural-born replacements, along with document-protected immigrants.

Rosa Baires, who was rehired by Franklin Street Bakery after a federal labor agency found merit to her claim that she was fired for her union support, recently fainted at work from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Forty-five-year-old Ned Neterval was among those who looked around him and saw wages frozen at starting rates, with no paid holidays or time off. He says he saw people pressured to work through breaks without pay, others sent home for questioning food contamination. He could not keep quiet.

He began to ask colleagues what they thought of unionizing. When word traveled to management, he found himself in one-on-one meetings, where he was warned his meddling could cause the bakery to fold, Neterval says.

Meanwhile, others were approaching the same local with wide-ranging complaints. They organized surreptitious meetings on Saturday mornings at the Waite House food shelf, a place familiar to workers who couldn’t feed their families. Like Travis Reinhardt.

Reinhardt, a 35-year-old Brainerd transplant, was living out of a car with his pregnant girlfriend when he found a job at Franklin Street Bakery. At first, he thought of himself as a company man. He had faith he could negotiate his own wage increases with each new task he mastered. When an industrial silo broke, he heaved 50-pound bags of flour into a mixer manually without complaint. Within a year, he could afford to rent an apartment.

But a tremble began to creep down his arm, accompanied by migraines that clouded his vision for weeks on end. Pinching pain in his spine seemed to tug his neck askew. He says his doctor told him he developed a herniated disc from repeated lifting.

When he asked to fill out an injury report, the first thing a manager asked was if he wanted to resign, Reinhardt says. Quitting was out of the question; he had to make a life for his family.

So he took a three-month unpaid leave. County assistance and his girlfriend’s hourly job at Nordstrom Rack sustained them. Driving her to the mall, there were times Reinhardt battled to stay awake at the wheel because pain kept him up all night.

His workers comp claim was settled only through legal action. That’s when Reinhardt realized how little he mattered to the company.

“The managers would literally bark at us to run faster, move, move, move, move, go,” he says. “If they were indeed that frickin’ busy, then they should expand. Don’t try to pressure the people who are there to work harder than they’re capable of because that’s when people get injured, when they make mistakes.”

The Benevolent Jefe

At the tail end of the ’60s, Wayne Kostroski played in a band called Circus, which gained a sizable following touring Wisconsin’s dive-bar circuit and opening for bigger names like Ted Nugent and Muddy Waters. Kostroski was good enough on bass. But what he really took away from the experience was booking shows, nosing around the bar industry, taking notes on what it took to run a restaurant.

By 2014, he was standing in a lecture hall at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, microphone clipped to his collar, arms crossed over an amiable sweater vest, radiating a bit of that old rock-star bearing. His presentation is full of levity. It’s clear he’s in his element, spreading the gospel of entrepreneurship.

The students ask about automation and employee retention. Kostroski answers boisterously. But when they ask if he offers health insurance, he pauses and restarts his answer, as if a complex response is required. It’s been four years since Congress mandated that employers with more than 50 workers must offer insurance or pay a penalty.

“Nobody takes it,” he explains. “Everybody talks about the benefits package. We have a benefits package. Many of the minorities that work where we’re at… a good number of them are working here to send money back home, so they don’t think like we do all the time.”

He goes on to explain that his workers come from all over the world, where some are used to jefes who don’t treat them well. By contrast, Franklin Street offers free six- to eight-week English courses, he says. And once a year, he sits down with each employee over coffee to chat about life and family.

“There’s a phrase that someone once told me, which I tell to my kids, ‘Be an individual that brings out the best in those around you,’” Kostroski says sagely. “If you do that, chances are you’re going to be successful.”

(When asked about the coffee and English classes, workers only laugh. The courses were a one-time experiment a decade ago, they say. There is no coffee with the boss.)

Yet Kostroski captivates the Carlson class with the karmic drama of his success, in which the essential parable seems to be that courageous ventures, undertaken with heart, are met with great reward. In his telling, Franklin Street may have been the salvation of Ventura Village.

At one point, Kostroski says, he and his partner Haugen had looked at each other, flush with the joint realization that they could become a real asset to the community by building the bakery there. He doesn’t mention it had been the American Indian Development Corporation—a nonprofit developer that toiled endlessly to diminish crime on Franklin Avenue in the early 2000s—that seduced them with a redevelopment package including more than $1 million of public funding.

Kostroski takes the same approach of businessman-as-savior in describing his Taste of the NFL, the celebrity dinner that burnished his reputation as a businessman of benevolence.

Yet in 2016, the charity filed an audit with the attorney general’s office. In the past, he’d claimed that “all proceeds” went directly to food shelves. The numbers told a different story.

That year, the NFL’s signature feast brought in about $2.5 million in revenue. Only $660,000 was awarded to hunger relief programs. The bulk was folded right back into the cost of throwing the party, including $180,000 to Cuisine Concepts, Kostroski’s company, as a management fee.

The whole truth

Back at the bakery, management responded to rising union talk by hanging signs in the break room banning workers from speaking Spanish, and claiming that an ongoing union drive prevented the company, by law, from improving any benefits. Workers took pictures of the signs, which would eventually reach the hands of the National Labor Relations Board.

Production was halted so employees could attend a series of mandatory meetings, in which company representatives stressed that the only goal of a union was to solicit dues, and that forming one could leave workers for the worse.

Employees say Franklin Street also began to target pro-union workers, 60-year-old Rosa Baires among them.

She took a leave to go to New York so she could bury her ex-husband and comfort the son they had together. When she returned, managers said there was no work for her, though she had left with their permission.

Baires, backed by a troop of co-workers and Local 22 President Bruce Peglow, confronted Kostroski at his Edina office. Kostroski dialed 911. Before police arrived, Baires spoke to Kostroski alone while the others waited just beyond his office doors.

The conversation between the top boss and one of his lowliest workers, a woman who prepared dough for thousands of loaves each night, is a war of wills.

Baires asks a plain question: Why had she been fired when she’d gotten permission to attend her ex-husband’s funeral? Kostroski’s responses are circuitous, evasive. He’s seemingly unaware that Baires is taping his every word.

Kostroski’s agitation cuts clear through the recording. He implies that Baires was dishonest, exaggerating her family emergency and lying about rushing to the side of her dead husband, when it was only her ex-husband. But he refuses to explain further. Since she no longer works for him, she deserves no more.

“I care a lot. I care a lot about the truth,” he scolds her. “When someone does not tell me the whole truth when I ask for it, then I’m done.”

Yet it’s clear Kostroski knows little of his own employees. Baires’ husband, Julio, works beside her at the bakery. He is very much alive.

Baires was denied unemployment. The story from the bakery was she’d quit, Baires stated in an affidavit later submitted to the National Labor Relations Board. She scoured the Waite House for food, where she’d run into old co-workers. Eventually, Local 22 helped her find new employ at TreeHouse Foods in Fridley, another wholesale bakery with a union and a starting wage of $14.

In the end, the union filed dozens of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, which found that Franklin Street likely committed 50 violations of federal law.

As Local 22 president Peglow thinks back to the day Baires challenged Kostroski, he’s stupefied by the apparent contradiction between the king of charity’s public image and the way he treats his employees.

“He was just being a real asshole, disrespectful, condescending,” Peglow recalls. “And here he’s a humanitarian raising money for food shelves? Forgive me, but you don’t have me convinced. That’s not the kind of man you really are.”

Straw man

In March 2017, Franklin Street reached a settlement with Local 22. Without admitting fault, the bakery agreed to provide each employee with a bill of their rights as guaranteed by federal labor law.

These included promises that the bakery would not prevent workers from using the bathroom and speaking their native languages. Managers would no longer call them “rabble rouser” or “liar” for trying to unionize.

The bakery also agreed to backpay for Baires and another worker who alleged she was fired for her union activity. Both were given the chance to return to work at Franklin Street—only Baires re-applied.

When she reported for duty, she was relegated back to a starting wage of $11.50 an hour. Co-workers asked why she would leave the better pay and conditions at TreeHouse.

“I didn’t want to give up, you know. I mean, it’s not like I want to stay working there forever, but it’s kind of like somebody has to show these people they’re not God.”

TreeHouse understood her need to settle a score, Baires says. Plus, her husband still worked for Franklin Street, and they shared a car. When she worked in Fridley and he in south Minneapolis, he’d have to wait an hour after his shift ended for her to pick him up. The extra $3 she earned at TreeHouse wasn’t worth it.

On the eve of Super Bowl 52, Kostroski presided over his 27th Taste of the NFL, a homecoming at St. Paul’s RiverCentre. Five blocks away at the Labor Center, Franklin Street workers were having a dinner of hamburgers and cole slaw with a federation of other unionists, raising money for local food shelves.

Afterward, they zipped on their snow pants and trudged into the snow and slush, through crowds of confused football fans swarming single-mindedly toward concerts and happy hours, chanting, “No Justice, No Bread.”

The way Kostroski sees it, Franklin Street has been the target of a personal corporate campaign. The National Labor Relations Board complaints were “unfounded and without merit,” he says.

It’s been two years since the union drive began, he notes, and there has yet to be a vote. But the union would rather conduct PR attacks, rallies, and press conferences. “A shame,” he says, “but it is beyond our control.”

But Local 22 faces obstacles of its own. Gathering signatures in a workplace with a revolving door of employees has been a Sisyphean feat. As soon as they gather a majority, workers quit or are fired, replaced by new people with little stake in changing a longstanding culture. And there can be no fair election if bakery bosses won’t commit to remaining neutral, allowing employees to organize without fear of reprisal, Local 22 believes.

This sort of arrangement, called a labor peace agreement, would bar workers from striking or protesting during the process. Kostroski won’t abide. He insists management retain the right to argue against unionization.

“We have proposed them more than once, agreements that don’t surrender our employees’ fundamental rights to be informed or that disenfranchise them,” he says. “The union has rejected them.”

Trenches

Dena Lagace is pregnant, a week away from a scheduled Caesarean section, loading trays of bread into a machine that polishes each batch with an egg wash before it’s sent to the ovens. To reach the trays in the lowest shelves of the bread rack, she stoops low, her full moon of a belly hanging heavy between her knees.

She says her doctor’s notes advised against this sort of motion. Supervisors gave Lagace the task anyway.

When she joined Franklin Street around 2014, she was a single mother, looking for full-time work that allowed her to be home with her three girls nights and weekends. She could never afford health insurance, and raises were few and far between. With no paid time off and children who were often sick, her attendance record suffered. Still, she avoided union talks, content to have a job at all.

That was until Lagace began to date Marco Tacuri, a longtime worker and vocal union supporter. In mandatory meetings when managers would try to convince workers of how the bakery was a family, and how families didn’t need a third-party negotiator, Tacuri would bring up what happened when Immigration audited Franklin Street in 2013. Lagace began to attend union meetings at the Waite House.

Soon, management told them they could neither speak to each other nor eat their lunches together, the couple says in a letter to the city council seeking help. Then Tacuri was assigned to the arduous duty of dumping baked bread onto a conveyer belt, an assignment that requires lifting pans of about 15-20 pounds each, rack after rack, and banging them hard to knock the bread loose.

The bakery’s practice was to rotate workers out of this station every two hours. Tacuri and Lagace say he manned it alone for three days straight. He believes bosses were trying to force him to quit.

When he didn’t, they fired him anyway. Tacuri says he’d gotten permission to leave work 15 minutes early one day so he could pick his daughter up from school. HR insisted he’d simply walked off the job without notice. The bakery called Tacuri’s allegations “unfounded,” and declined to comment further pending review by the National Labor Relations Board.

Tacuri had been saving his vacation time—a new benefit introduced since the union campaign took hold—for the moment Lagace went into delivery. He’d been saving money so she could take time off.

“They give me fired, I don’t have anything. You understand? … I am the man,” he says, “I need to take money to the house, take money to buy food. This I do. But no, this time, this getting fired, I cannot do anything.”

The move led to another round of complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board. This time, Franklin Street hasn’t settled. Tacuri and Lagace both have been subpoenaed by the bakery’s lawyers for all their digital communications. An administrative hearing will take place in April.

In January, Rosa Baires whispered to her husband that she had an unnaturally persistent headache. She felt tired and dizzy—the same symptoms that everyone else in their production line seemed to be complaining of all at once. Without warning, a co-worker crumpled to the floor. Baires watched as others carried the woman into the break room. She felt her own breaths come short.

Baires fell. When she regained consciousness, she found herself propped against a dumpster on the loading dock. An ambulance took her to Hennepin County Medical Center, which determined she had carbon monoxide poisoning.

The fire department measured 280 ppm of carbon monoxide in the production area, and ordered maintenance to turn off all the ovens. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration continues to investigate.

When Baires went to the company clinic for a follow-up appointment, she says, the doctor declared her fit and ready to return to work. She protested. Her head ached still, and the suffocating weight on her chest had not subsided. The doctor insisted she was fully recovered, closed her case, and ordered her to return to work.

That day she called her personal physician for a second opinion. Her doctor concluded that she was not well and advised additional home rest.

The bakery had been poised to fire her when she didn’t show up for work, Baires says. But because she had orders from her doctor that contradicted the company’s, she could not be dismissed. Her symptoms persist, and she still doesn’t know when she will be ready for work.

She also doesn’t know how much longer she can last at Franklin Street. She says the demands on her 60-year-old body are more than she can bear, and she has no love left for a company that has never allowed her to prosper. Like the others, she believes forming a union is her only unfinished business.

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