IN JANUARY, À LA FRANÇAISE, THE locally owned bakery beloved for its scrumptious breads and pastries, was sold to the Sara Lee Corporation for an undisclosed sum of money. Apparently the deal was just too good to pass up--at least for the former owners. The bakery's employees haven't fared as well. According to current workers, 14 employees in the distribution department have already been forced out, with another 16 or so on the way, putting the lie to the jingle "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee."

À La Française began as a partnership in 1980, when it was run out of a cramped basement on First Avenue. The company grew to be quite successful: by 1998, À La Française employed 170 people and sold baked goods to more than 250 grocery stores, coffee shops, and restaurants in Western Washington. The company earned close to $10 million last year.

They took a unique approach to employment, hiring musicians and artist-types to drive their delivery trucks. Delivery drivers worked part-time for $10 per hour, and received full health insurance benefits as well as 401K plans. This arrangement gave workers the flexibility to pursue outside interests, and reportedly suited drivers and company owners alike.

Enter big, bad corporation Sara Lee, whose buttoned-down approach hasn't meshed well with À La Française's employee base. After the sale, one of the company's first moves was to tell 30 drivers that they would need to purchase their own trucks and work as independent contractors--meaning they would have to figure their own taxes and pay for their own insurance.

Delivery drivers like Per Bernstein were immediately suspicious. "They've been telling us one thing and doing another," he says. First, the company told them that if they didn't want to become independent distributors, other jobs would be made available to them. But, Bernstein says, they couldn't get anything in writing about it. Drivers turned to the Teamsters union in an effort to protect their jobs.

That's when things really started to heat up. Bernstein says Sara Lee barred anyone from posting information about the benefits of unionizing at the bakery. So, he says, the Teamsters "dragged Sara Lee downtown to a labor board meeting, and that was where the truth came out."

Ed Tyler, Secretary Treasurer of Teamsters' local 227, says Sara Lee was planning to fire all the drivers who refused to adhere to the new work structure--after which there would be very few people left to unionize. "We could have won an election [to unionize], but Sara Lee told them they were going to fire all the drivers," says Tyler. The word came from Simon Mani, President of the company's Bakery Division, who testified at the February hearing that the drivers would be laid off between April 15 and 30.

Sara Lee officials declined to comment for the story, instead faxing over a rather cheery press release: "We have structured Sara Lee Fresh in a way we believe is best for the company and those who help us transport out fresh bakery goods directly to the stores that sell our products," it reads. "However, we realize that our practice of employing independent contractors to distribute products represents a different way of doing business for the drivers at À La Française. This approach is an integral part of our business philosophy and has worked well for all parties.... Our plan is to convert as many drivers as possible by April 30, 1999. We do not anticipate any disruption in distribution."

Employees from many areas of the former À La Française bakery have pushed for answers about the future, but still have nothing in writing. Former Distribution Manager Colin Bush, who was fired in March, says the lack of information seems like a strategy. He speculates that Sara Lee hopes employees will just "fall out" while they stall, saving them expensive unemployment benefits. Many employees have already done just that.

Bush expects that 30 percent of À La Française employees will leave during the next three months, and expects that number to approach 50 percent in the following three months. Bush and his Seattle attorney, Jill Hawkins, are considering litigation for wrongful termination and reprisal. He says he was fired in part because he wouldn't help stamp out the drive to unionize.

"The great thing about working at À La Française was [its] ability to make every worker feel like they were a big part of the company's success," Bernstein laments. "It's too bad that ingredient isn't part of Sara Lee's 'recipe for success.'"

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