Theo makes some damn fine chocolate, but at $4 for a 3-ounce bar it's an extravagance not everyone can afford, especially when a perfectly adequate "Pound Plus" bar can be bought at Trader Joe's for only a dollar more. Still, the premium price buys more than just a better tasting chocolate. Seattle-based Theo proudly promotes its products as both organic and "fair trade." I mean, that "Fair for Life" logo must account for something, right?

Apparently, 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."

On Valentines Day, Wiest joined an ex-Theo employee and other protesters outside the Westlake Whole Foods Market, accusing the high-end chocolatier of union busting, while passing out samples of "genuine" fair trade chocolate from a heart-shaped pinata. The dispute stems from a 2010 effort by Theo workers to unionize, an effort Theo management allegedly countered with a campaign of hostility, intimidation, and retaliation. The Teamsters are asking that Theo "walk the talk" when it comes to recognizing the rights of their own workers to organize, a core principle of the fair trade movement. But mostly they're just demanding integrity in the fair trade certification process itself.

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

The troubles started in 2009 when Theo signed a contract to distribute its products throughout Whole Foods national chain, a deal that required a substantial increase in production at its Seattle plant. Workers allege that the production speed-up resulted in several injuries and deteriorating working conditions, prompting an initial group of 12 workers to explore the prospect of forming a union as a proactive means of improving their workplace, an action they believed to be fully 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 shared their grievances, including safety concerns, onerous workloads, short notice shift and furlough changes, low wages, mandated overtime, 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, 19 of the 30 Theo workers legally eligible to form a union would ultimately sign cards authorizing union representation.

And that's when the chocolate hit the fan.

According to an October, 2012 report issued by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF)—"Aiding and Abetting: How Unaccountable Fair Trade Certifiers Are Destroying Workers' Rights"—as soon as Theo management learned of the organizing effort they responded with a campaign of "emotional manipulation, guilt, intimidation, fear and derogatory accusations about unions in general." On March 3, two senior marketing managers confronted a union supporter in a break room, demeaning her organizing efforts, accusing her of "ruining the family of Theo Chocolate," and causing her to cry. On March 7 workers met again to discuss their organizing efforts, only to have the meeting disrupted by four Theo managers.

Then Theo brought in the big guns, hiring David Acosta of American Consulting Group (ACG), a firm whose website claims it specializes in "union avoidance strategies," and that boasts "unparalleled success in designing preventative programs that continues to keep thousands of our clients union-free."

On March 9, the report claims, Theo CEO Joe Whinney called a mandatory staff meeting at which he attacked the organizing effort and the Teamsters. Employees were told that unions get "commissions" for organizing workers (not true), and that forming a union would damage the relationship between management and employees. Over the next few weeks management repeated these tactics—what workers referred to as "emotional blackmail"—sometimes crying in front of workers, and accusing organizers of selfishly hurting the interests of the poor farmers who supplied Theo its cocoa. "You can't imagine how hard life is in Africa—your situation pales in comparison to theirs," the ILRF report quotes one senior manager telling a union supporter.

"There was a lot of crying," says Wiest. She had warned workers of what to expect from management, but most of them thought that Theo would welcome the union. "Oh no, this is going to be great for Theo," Wiest remembers workers saying. Employees had bought into Theo's fair trade philosophy, and expected the company to treat its Seattle workers with the same respect. Wiest says that Theo's aggressive anti-union campaign was actually pretty typical, but that Theo workers were "horrified" at the response. "It was really shocking for them," says Wiest, "and for many it was too much handle."

Valentines Day protesters say that Theo Chocolates union-busting efforts broke their hearts.
  • Teamsters 117
  • Valentines Day protesters say that Theo Chocolate's union-busting efforts broke their hearts.

By the end of March 2010, most of the workers had already given up out of fear and/or discouragement; the organizing meetings ended and Wiest says she retained contact with only a handful of workers. But the union avoidance campaign didn't end there.

For months, management kept up the pressure, long after the union organizing effort had ended. On March 28, Rachel Tabor, a Theo tour guide and a leader of the union effort was called into a meeting in which her capacity to continue in her post was questioned, and at which she was told by Whinney that he would rather close the factory than sign a contract with the Teamsters. On April 9 Whinney told Taber that he and Theo's financiers would pull out of the business before signing a union contract.

The ILRF report alleges that union supporters were denied raises, while workers who vocally opposed the union received promotions. By summer, several union supporters including Taber had quit Theo over their treatment, convinced that they had been black-listed against future promotions. And on October 25, 2010, Mackenzie Jahnke, a lead union supporter, was fired. No cause was given. Jahnke had received a positive evaluation just weeks before.

Not surprisingly, Theo disputes the ILRF report. "The accusations contained in this report are false, the tone is gratuitous and sensational, and the report methodology is flawed," Theo VP of sales and marketing Debra Music wrote in response to my queries. Maybe. But even if Theo disputes the details of their anti-union campaign, they can't dispute that it happened. Much to the surprise of their employees, Theo management aggressively opposed the union organizing effort, hiring an out-of-state consultant to guide them in their "union avoidance strategies."

"There's nothing they can say in response to the fact that they hired an anti-union consultant at $300 an hour," points out Wiest. I asked Music to confirm or deny whether Theo actively opposed the unionization effort, and have yet to hear back.

In her letter to The Stranger and other publications, Music insists that Theo workers simply did not want to unionize:

In October 2010, during the Teamsters organizing campaign, our employees initiated, drafted, and distributed a petition indicating they did not want to unionize. The petition clearly states, “Accusations made about Theo’s reaction to the proposed introduction of a union are untrue. In reality, a meeting was called and administered by employees and it was made clear that the majority of us were not interested in a Teamsters union. This is the reason Theo currently does not have Union representation; most of us didn’t want one.”

But that was after eight months of anti-union agitation, long after the organizing efforts had ceased. "There is no denying ... that at one point, 19 out of 31 Theo workers formally expressed interest in forming a union at Theo’s plant in Seattle," ILRF campaigns director Sean Rudolph emailed in response to Theo's rebuttal. "As the report lays out, most of the workers who led the organizing drive were fired or intimidated and eventually left the company."

And that gets to the heart of the Teamsters' and the ILRF's complaint: That Theo management mounted a concerted union avoidance campaign in the midst of its fair trade certification process, an international standard that explicitly recognizes the right of workers to "form a trade union of their own choosing and to bargain collectively." The same rights that the "Fair for Life" logo on its chocolate bars proclaims for its African cocoa farmers, Theo fought to deny the workers in its Seattle factory.

To be clear, Wiest says, there is no active union organizing effort at Theo Chocolates. That was squashed three years ago, and there are no plans to try again anytime soon. What the Teamsters and ILRF are fighting for is integrity in the process of fair trade certification. ILRF appealed to the Institute for Market Ecology (IMO), the Swiss-based organization that certifies the "Fair for Life" label, and the "Aiding and Abetting" report mostly documents IMO's inadequate response.

"Domestic fair trade needs to be incorporated into this conversation," insists Wiest. "But if you won't even apply the international standard of freedom of association to your own workers in the US, what does fair trade mean for your company?"

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