In a 24-page report titled "Aiding & Abetting: How Unaccountable Fair Trade Certifiers Are Destroying Workers' Rights", the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) details a 2010 chain of events in which it claims Seattle's Theo Chocolate violated U.S. and international labor standards during a union organizing campaign by workers at the company - allegations Theo strongly denies.
The ILRF report claims that in 2010, based on concerns over workplace safety, increased workloads, shift changes and mandated long hours, employees at Theo met with a representative from Teamsters Local 117 and attempted to unionize, in hopes of negotiating a fair contract. In response, according to the ILRF report, management at Theo - including CEO Joe Whinney - hired David Acosta from American Consulting Group (ACG), a company "that specializes in advising management on labor relations strategies." Citing information available on the ACG website, the ILRF report indicates ACG was hired to help Theo develop a "union-avoidance" strategy that included assisting "management in 'realigning employees' to ensure that the company will remain union-free in the long term."
According to the ILRF report, the "union-busting" tactics employed by Theo during this time constituted a violation of U.S. and international labor standards. Despite this, "On May 28, 2010, two months after Theo management initiated its union avoidance offensive, the Institute for Market Ecology (IMO) certified Theo Chocolate as meeting one of its fair trade standards called 'Fair for Life' despite hearing from workers about Theo's anti-union tactics," according to the ILRF report. Furthermore, the ILRF report contends that when pressured by Theo workers to audit and reevaluate the "Fair for Life" classification it had awarded the chocolate maker, the IMO did so, but upheld its original decision - further claiming that the findings of the audit were confidential. The ILRF report alleges that the IMO "loosened its own labor standards in order to justify its decision."
The IMO did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story.
In an exchange with Seattle Weekly Tuesday, Debra Music, vice president of sales and marketing at Theo, strongly denies the allegations contained in the ILRF report and calls into question the methodology used. Music says Theo is "troubled" by the ILRF report.
"The accusations contained in this report are false, the tone is gratuitous and sensational, and the report methodology is flawed," writes Music in a letter to Seattle Weekly (posted in full below).
According to Music, in the crafting of its report the ILRF blatantly ignored evidence that didn't support its preconceived thesis.
"In October 2010, during the Teamsters organizing campaign, our employees initiated, drafted, and distributed a petition indicating they did not want to unionize," writes Music. "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.' The petition continues, 'We are distressed and demoralized that a few people are undermining the hard work we put into Theo every day. We feel very strongly this is an excellent place of employment and we don't want to let a few people speak on our behalf.'
"We shared this petition with the ILRF, but they elected to ignore it," continues Music. "This is disturbing to us."
The ILRF report concludes with four strongly worded recommendations which it says Theo must follow. These recommendations include affirming the company's "obligation to respect all of the laws and regulations concerning the treatment of its employees," and affirming "its obligation to respect the rights set forth in the International Labor Organization's 'Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work' - particularly with respect to Conventions 87 and 98 on Freedom of Association, as well as ILO Convention 135 on 'Workers' Representatives.'" The last recommendation insists that Theo must demonstrate to employees that it is now supportive and open to them unionizing.
According to Best, Theo is already doing three out of the four.
"In fact, we can confirm ILRF's first three recommendations are and have always been in place at Theo," writes Music. "We respect all local and national laws and regulations concerning the treatment of our employees, as well as the core ILO conventions and the intent of the specific conventions to which ILRF is referring."
"Regarding the fourth recommendation in ILRF's report, we can't agree to initiate communications that imply our support for or against union organizing. Our role is not to engage the Teamsters, but to support and protect our employees' rights, which we wholeheartedly do," she continues. "At no time has Theo fired or discriminated against employees based on their activities or preferences around unions. Discrimination against employees is illegal, and it's important to note that, while ILRF's claims date back to 2010, no complaint has ever been filed against Theo with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)."
Find the ILRF report and Theo's written response to it on the following page ...
Here's the ILRF report:
And here's Theo's response to the report, sent to Seattle Weekly: