Are Theo's "Fair Trade" Chocolates Unfair to Seattle Workers?

A Clash Between Management and Workers Who Want to Unionize

Theo makes some damn fine chocolate, but at $4 for a three-ounce bar, it's not an everyday extravagance. Still, the premium price buys more than just a better-tasting chocolate.

Seattle-based Theo Chocolate proudly touts its social conscience, promoting its products as both organic and "fair trade." That "Fair for Life" logo must account for something, right?

According to a new report alleging union-busting at Theo's Seattle factory, not all that much.

"Fair trade should mean fair trade for all workers," says Brenda Wiest, a union organizer for Teamsters Local 117. "If I'm going to pay $4 for a friggin' chocolate bar," Wiest admonishes, "then some of my four bucks should go back to the workers here in Seattle."

The dispute stems from a 2010 attempt by Theo workers to unionize. Labor organizers claim Theo management countered with a campaign of hostility, intimidation, and retaliation. Theo management would not comment for this story, but in a statement CEO Joe Whinney categorically denies these allegations, dismissing much of the report as "sensational" and its methodology as "fundamentally flawed." It's a classic "he said, she said." But what seems clear from the claims and counterclaims is that a union-organizing effort that started with majority support from eligible workers quickly fell apart in the face of opposition from management—opposition that was counter to the spirit of the fair-trade movement.

"This is about Theo claiming to be fair trade," says Wiest, when they're really just "selling consumers a bill of goods."

According to an October 2012 report issued by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), a Washington, DC–based pro-labor advocacy group, the troubles started in 2009 when Theo signed a distribution contract with Whole Foods, a deal that required a substantial increase in production at its Seattle plant. The report alleges that accelerating production resulted in several injuries and deteriorating working conditions (in a statement posted to the Theo website, Whinney counters that only one injury claim was filed with the state Department of Labor & Industries in all of 2009). According to the report, 12 workers decided to explore the prospect of forming a union, an action they believed to be consistent with Theo's avowed commitment to fair-trade principles. The workers approached Teamsters Local 117 for help and advice.

Over several meetings attended by more than half of Theo's non-management employees in February of 2010, workers reportedly shared their grievances, including safety concerns, onerous workloads, short notice for shift and furlough changes, mandated overtime (Whinney insists overtime was always "optional"), and the suspicion of wage discrimination against non-English-speaking workers.

And "a dental plan," emphasizes Wiest. The most concrete monetary benefit that Theo workers wanted, says Wiest, was "access to affordable dental insurance." Not an unreasonable demand for workers at a high-end candy company. By early March of that year, 19 of the 30 Theo workers legally eligible to form a union had signed cards authorizing union representation.

That's when the chocolate hit the fan.

According to the ILRF report, Theo managers responded with a campaign of "emotional manipulation, guilt, [and] intimidation," confronting union supporters and disrupting organizing meetings. Then Theo brought in the big gun, hiring David Acosta from American Consulting Group (ACG), an out-of-state firm specializing in "union avoidance strategies," whose website boasts of "unparalleled success in designing preventative programs that continues to keep thousands of our clients union-free."

Whinney says that Acosta was merely hired to answer workers' questions, and claims to "have no visibility into whether Mr. Acosta has ever been affiliated with ACG." Wiest says she is well familiar with Acosta, having faced off against him in previous unionizing efforts.

The report claims that over the next few weeks, managers allegedly engaged in what workers described as "emotional blackmail"—sometimes crying in front of workers, sometimes angrily accusing organizers of selfishly hurting the interests of the poor farmers who supplied Theo with its cocoa. "You can't imagine how hard life is in Africa—your situation pales in comparison to theirs," the report quotes one senior manager telling a union supporter.

"There was a lot of crying," says Wiest. She had warned workers to expect such tactics, but most thought that Theo would welcome the union. By summer, the report alleges, several union supporters had quit.

Whinney strenuously denies any accusations of discrimination or retaliation, and he points to an October 2010 letter signed by Theo employees denying the criticisms later laid out in the ILRF report and stating that "the majority of us were not interested in a Teamsters union." But that was after eight months of anti-union agitation. "Theo could have voluntarily recognized the union" after a majority of workers signed union cards in March, Teamsters spokesman Paul Zilly explains. "Instead, the company hired a known union-busting law firm and cracked down on union supporters."

"There's nothing they can say in response to the fact that they hired an anti-union consultant at $300 an hour," says Wiest. I e-mailed Theo vice president of sales and marketing Debra Music to "confirm or deny that Theo opposed the unionization effort, and that management hired David Acosta to assist with the company's union avoidance strategies." She did not respond.

And that gets to the heart of the Teamsters/ILRF complaint: that Theo mounted a union-avoidance campaign in the midst of its "fair trade" certification process. At the time it certified Theo as "Fair for Life," the Institute for Market Ecology's own standards explicitly recognized the right of workers to "form a trade union of their own choosing and to bargain collectively."

"If you won't even apply the international standard of freedom of association to your own workers in the United States," asks Wiest, "what does fair trade mean for your company?"

Not nearly as much as customers shelling out $4 for those "fair trade" chocolate bars might think. recommended


Comments (46) RSS

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I see a single "categorical denial" from the CEO.

Why not press the issue?
Posted by Joel_are on February 26, 2013 at 11:16 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 45
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 26, 2013 at 3:08 AM · Report this
Goldy 44
@43 Did you actually read the piece?
Posted by Goldy on February 25, 2013 at 3:10 PM · Report this
Just a thought, but did anyone contact management to hear their side of the story? I mean, it sounds pretty bad and you don't want to give cover with false equivalence, but it is pretty standard reporting SOP to talk to all the players before putting together an article.
Posted by Joel_are on February 24, 2013 at 10:20 PM · Report this
inquiastador 42
I don't care about whether Theo's corporate policies are good or bad, because Claudio Corallo and a host of other chocolate makers eat theo's lunch. For breakfast.
Posted by inquiastador on February 24, 2013 at 4:22 PM · Report this
@40 DING DING DING! We have a winner!
Posted by treehugger on February 24, 2013 at 11:07 AM · Report this
Sounds like Theo doesn't have enough Stranger staffers as party buddies.
Posted by yuppindiewhitenessoverload on February 23, 2013 at 11:58 AM · Report this
I'm not a Theo employee, not a union member, and I work an honest job for a living. My wife is a union member and loves it because they treat her well. My son was once a union member and he hated it because they took his money and provided little in return.
I buy the $4.00 Theo bars at my local drugstore for $3.00. The employees at the drugstore are unionized.
I'm addicted to Theo chocolate much like a junkie is to heroin. All this talk about unionizing makes no difference to me at all.
Posted by dagmeneer on February 22, 2013 at 9:33 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 38
@36 Unless they were just recently hired and fed a complete load of bullshitty falsehoods celebrating how good their company is.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on February 22, 2013 at 6:40 PM · Report this
@35 - While I do work for a grocery store that sells Theo Chocolate, I do not also work for Theo. I pretty sure I said that in my original post. If we're throwing wild and totally unfounded accusations about each other (which is I guess what the internet was invented for?), I suggest you go back doing whatever it is that you do for the ILRF and/or the Teamsters. Or, maybe you work for a rival local chocolate company like Fran's. And if you are a chocolate fan, I hope you find another chocolate company that you do feel comfortable with. I would suggest trying Rox Chox from Portland. It is delicious and you can find it where I work. Hey! Maybe we'll even run into each other!
Posted by Bob Loblaw's Law Blog on February 22, 2013 at 4:22 PM · Report this
Who cares if Theo employees are commenting on this story? If my Seattle-based employer came under fire, and I knew a different side of the story, I'd be ALL UP IN the comments section. Sure an employee's side might make them a little biased, but it also means that they KNOW MORE THAN YOU.
Posted by lasereyespekewpekew on February 22, 2013 at 1:03 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 35
@33, shouldn't you be back making chocolate bars?
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 21, 2013 at 7:05 PM · Report this
syd 34
I can't live without Theo bars every few weeks and feel guilty and conflicted now.
Posted by syd on February 21, 2013 at 4:57 PM · Report this
@31 - Yep. Did you have a point to make there?
Posted by Bob Loblaw's Law Blog on February 21, 2013 at 4:10 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 32
Do you even work or are you just another trust fund lib?
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on February 21, 2013 at 3:49 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 31
@30 Welcome to Slog. See you've been here for a little over an hour!

Seriously, I LOVE the new sloggers who signed up for Theo Chocolate!!
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 21, 2013 at 3:02 PM · Report this
There are a few things I'd like to add. First, I work at a cooperative grocery store on Capitol Hill and we carry Theo Chocolate. They are one of the most ethical and values focused brands we carry. Second, it is up to the workers at Theo to decide if they want a union. Not us, not The Stranger and not Brenda Weist. I absolutely support unions and workers' rights and we need to remember that voting for a union is a democratic process for the workers at compapny. Is there a single quote from a current Theo employee in this entire article? If the employees want a union, they can actually form a union that is comprised of just Theo workers, and they could call it the "Theo Chocolate Workers Union". The workers might be considering not only if a union is right for them, but also if the Teamsters are the right union to represent them. Third, when workers are organizing they have rights under the NLRA, but Theo has legal obligations as well. If they have done anything illegal, they can be brought before the NLRB. Honestly, I think this story is pretty incomplete and ultimately unfair to a highly ethical local company that has done groundbreaking work. Theo's workers need to be able to make their voice heard and decide what they want to do, and this article does not do them justice.
Posted by Bob Loblaw's Law Blog on February 21, 2013 at 2:15 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 29
@25, you've been schooled by #27.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 21, 2013 at 1:30 PM · Report this
emor 28
Fuck boycotts and lobbyist reports. I want facts. So far I am NOT convinced of anything. I say this as a union member who works in the natural foods industry.
Posted by emor on February 21, 2013 at 1:29 PM · Report this
And hey Emor ass (#25), you are the one who should shut the fuck up without knowing what you are talking about. It is more than a he-said she-said if it has been LEGALLY vetted, which it has been. Every point in the report verified by a team of lawyers. That is beyond gossip. Hence, the Organic Consumers Association Boycott-
Kick Theo out of Whole Foods!
Posted by Mondobondo on February 21, 2013 at 1:23 PM · Report this
But they have been operating like this since they began. Their treatment of many employees, and how they forced out the original founders and claimed it for themselves has been shameless. There is proof that even the current owners think that fair trade is a sham. Hey Ben Affleck, too bad about your east Congo partners, they won't get more slave gold from these asses.
Posted by Mondobondo on February 21, 2013 at 1:19 PM · Report this
emor 25
Shit the fuck up, Cato. You are adding nothing to the conversation.

Anyways, I'm disappointed by this article. It didn't really answer any questions at all, letting the issue remain a he-said-she-said. I'd like to see a more in-depth feature on this.
Posted by emor on February 21, 2013 at 1:07 PM · Report this
Last of the Time Lords 24
@23,21,15. I wish I worked at Theo Chocolate so I could post stuff on the internet defending my employer's hypocritical claims of being socially aware all day long.
Posted by Last of the Time Lords on February 21, 2013 at 7:14 AM · Report this
@22 we'd take you seriously if your your postings on Slog didn't reflect that you are on this website all day everyday. In fact, you are so attached that you stand fully behind the author of whatever you read and become defensive on that author's behalf when someone disagrees. Why don't you go check things out for yourself rather than blindly standing behind something you read on the internet?
Posted by JaxtotheMax on February 21, 2013 at 4:56 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 22
@21, we'd take you seriously if your first posting on Slog wasn't a full throated defense of Theo Chocolate's ....practices.

And you've just been schooled bitch!!
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 21, 2013 at 3:16 AM · Report this
Dear The Stranger,
You should pretty much be extremely embarrased for actually printing this outright bogusly bias article without even doing your actual research. How priviledged are you to have a real deal chocolate factory in your backyard who will school your asses in any cacao related business you dare to even dream? And this is how you show up? Here's some food for thought: ask your barista (after you pay 4$ for one drink) about the farmers, origin of bean, labor paractices & monies that are being exchanged throughout the entire supply chain all the way to that delicious espresso you are drinking right now..these pleasure drugs come with a price, at who's mercy? And can your barista even answer those questions? Highly doubtful. March your asses down to 3400 Phinney Ave N and get schooled from the inside out in the real deal business of the cacao world, conscious style and what that means for ALL people creating the goods . the finished product is a masterpiece of many hands collaborating and an indulgence you are all partaking in, and probably taking for granted ..., who's your farmer, dear the stranger?

Posted by infinity206 on February 21, 2013 at 1:16 AM · Report this
Theo is above average chocolate - but not as amazing as everyone is drooling over. And the 'Fair Trade' brand has a lot of issues with transparency, corruption, standards etc.

Theo's over-the-top claims of saving the world and lovefest and their attempts to guilt me into paying ridiculous amounts for their chocolate make me suspicious, in general. A better, deeper, more detailed article would actually be helpful.
Posted by Cassette tape fan on February 20, 2013 at 7:47 PM · Report this
Ms. Wiest demands dental, does she? Ms. Wiest needs to invest her $ in new co. That meets her demands and worker demands.30 years into small biz, we can afford no dental plan. Never had it. Workers all have hrs. And benefits we never had. Always complain, want fewer hrs more benefits with no investment. Obama told these people they are entitled. Typical entitled Seattle Lib! Ms. Wiest hit the bricks, create that perfect co with no debt, no worries re new, more expensive Obamacare. No $ left for dental. Go take Econ 101. Business expenses go up, benefits go down- 4th grade math!
Posted by JerJer on February 20, 2013 at 7:12 PM · Report this
We also have small business in Wa. No matter what risk and investment of time and $, workers are never satisfied. Ms Wiest demands Dental insurance?30 years later dental is still unaffordable to us. We've never had dental. All our employees work shorter hrs, put no $ into biz and make same as us. Always want more. I suggest Wiest go start own choc company, see how it works out for her. Typical entitled Seattle Lib. (backed up by Obama who never had 1 employee or ran a lemonade stand). Fools all!
Posted by Jerjam on February 20, 2013 at 7:02 PM · Report this
I have not had the pleasure to work for Theo but I know people that have & still do. These individuals have nothing but positive things to say. They do so much for the Northwest & the planet!! We have a saying in Hawaii, it's Malama Pono, that means to do what is right. Theo has & will continue to Malama Pono.
Posted by Northwest Wahine on February 20, 2013 at 6:48 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 16
WOW! It took 13 comments before the obligatory Theo defense kicked in.

@14, could be.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 20, 2013 at 6:11 PM · Report this
Piss poor reporting by the Stranger--you should be ashamed to print this. This article is one-sided and only barely quotes Joe Whinney, much less any actual Theo employees who were there when this stuff went down.

As someone who has actually spoken to employees who were working at the company at the time the union stuff happened, the ILRF report (also one-sided to a fault) grossly misstates and overblows claims of Theo wrongdoing.

When is someone going to report both sides of the issue and get to the bottom of what actually happened? I truly believe that if a news outlet did this, everyone would stop getting their undies in a twist and realize that at the end of the day, Theo not only makes incredible chocolate, but they treat their workers (and everyone along their supply chain) a with dignity and respect that is commendable not only when compared with other corporations but also on its own merits.
Posted by theosupporter on February 20, 2013 at 4:58 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 14
@5 Did you interview for the company I work for?
Posted by TheMisanthrope on February 20, 2013 at 4:51 PM · Report this
SoSoundObserver 13
File this under "no good deed goes unpunished": Start a company with a great concept, grow it into one of the county's (world's?) best in its business, create opportunity for local farmers around the world, and provide employment with benefits for a growing number of Seattleites, only to be confronted by a few who feel they are entitled to more? Sounds to me like a pretty sweet deal (pun intended).
Posted by SoSoundObserver on February 20, 2013 at 4:47 PM · Report this
Theo Chocolate just lost my business.
Posted by whitney on February 20, 2013 at 4:45 PM · Report this
Then what's stopping you?
Posted by Reader01 on February 20, 2013 at 2:42 PM · Report this
Goldy 10
@9 Actually, Tim says he'd never cross a picket line. He'd join us, holding a sign that says "I'm Not Fair!"
Posted by Goldy on February 20, 2013 at 2:31 PM · Report this
@7 Tim would fire his ass so fast.... LOL!!!
Posted by Toooo Funny on February 20, 2013 at 2:25 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 8
And by forcing them to drive I mean locating their facilities that don't have access to Metro or Sound Transit.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 20, 2013 at 1:55 PM · Report this
When are you going to organize The Stranger, Goldy?
Posted by Reader01 on February 20, 2013 at 1:54 PM · Report this
Same thing happened at essential baking this last year.....
Posted by former ebc on February 20, 2013 at 1:33 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 5
On a side note: there is a larger issue about local Seattle businesses that paint themselves as being socially aware. Fair Trade, being a Green Company, etc. has turned into nothing more than a marketing tool to sell their goods to a largely progressive community. And there maybe a small portion of their business model that lives up to the hype. But it's almost always decimated by the sheer greed behind the false advertizing.

How many of us in looking for a new job find these "green" companies are located in the middle of nowhere in King County. They love to say they are green but defacto force their employees to drive 30 or 40 miles round trip to work each day instead of allowing them to take public transit.

I'm glad that this example was exposed by The Stranger and I hope they expose more of the local companies who are pulling similar bullshit. All because it's local and socially aware doesn't mean shit.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 20, 2013 at 12:07 PM · Report this
A $1.00 Hershey's bar is also made with child slave labor.
Posted by SUCapHill on February 20, 2013 at 12:06 PM · Report this
Sheesh, even $1.00 Hershey bars are made with union labor.

Why did the workers go to the Teamsters? They should have organized into UFCW.
Posted by David in Shoreline on February 20, 2013 at 11:41 AM · Report this
heavyhebrew 2
Once again even the loftiest of ideals succumbs to the encroaching, overreaching, ever grasping corporate god, Profit.

Surprise twist: owners cried instead of dismissing out of hand the need for workers collective bargaining.
Posted by heavyhebrew on February 20, 2013 at 11:27 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 1
Time until corproate hacks from Theo Chocolate try to overtake the comment section gushing about how wonderful Theo is to it's employees and worker bees overseas?
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on February 20, 2013 at 9:30 AM · Report this

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