Add America’s Test Kitchen employees to the wave of fed-up workers forming a union.
After churning out the Boston media company’s TV shows, magazines, and cookbooks from their homes during the pandemic, and helping drive record profits as people rediscovered their kitchens, workers are demanding more: Pay that they say will allow them to “live with dignity.” Compensation for — or relief from — long hours. Better health insurance benefits. Increased diversity.
“It’s a profitable company. It’s not one where people should have to make sacrifices to the way they’re living or take out second jobs in order to make ends meet,” said Chad Chenail, 30, a staff writer on the kids’ team. When the pandemic hit, he said: “We figured out ways to make it work. But we didn’t see a return from that. The company didn’t reward any of those people who really sacrificed.”
A spokesman for America’s Test Kitchen noted that the company offers strong compensation and benefits and prides itself on the fact that a quarter of its employees are people of color and that employee turnover was less than 5 percent last year.
“The management of the company is also proud of the fact that it has worked with, and been responsive to, employees when they raise concerns, and it would prefer to continue to work directly and collectively with employees in the future, rather than have to deal with a union on their behalf,” spokesman Brian Franklin said in a statement. “If a majority elect a union, the company will bargain with that union in good faith. In the upcoming weeks, we will ensure that every employee has the information necessary to make an informed decision on the merits of unionization.”
The America’s Test Kitchen workers — more than 100 of whom have signaled their support for organizing — filed a petition Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election. It’s been inspiring to see other employees organize across the country, they said, as the pandemic exacerbated workplace inequities and the social justice movement exploded. The labor shortage has further emboldened people to speak out, confident that it won’t be tough to find another job if need be. Workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Conde Nast, which produces competing food publication Bon Appetit, have all formed unions in recent months, as have those at smaller independent businesses around Boston such as Pavement Coffeehouse and City Feed and Supply.
Keith Hogarty, lead organizer with the Communications Workers of America, which is seeking to represent America’s Test Kitchen workers, said he’s seen more new union activity in the last two years than he has in two decades of organizing. Employees saw how well union members were protected during the pandemic, he said, and organizing new workers has become easier with the widespread adoption of video conference tools like Zoom. Many of the workers organizing are white-collar professionals seeking not just higher pay, he said, but respect and a voice on the job. And their college degrees and expertise make them that much more valuable to employers.
“A lot of these men and women are highly experienced and highly trained,” he said. “You have some bargaining power. You have some strength.”
When America’s Test Kitchen shut down its 55,000-square-foot workspace in the Seaport in March 2020, the shift in working conditions was massive. Photographers took pictures of food they prepared themselves. The podcast host recorded shows in a closet. The kitchen operations team coordinated early-morning Instacart deliveries to dozens of test cooks scattered around the region.
A year into this massive work-from-home effort, the workers started organizing over Zoom. And they learned a lot. Until recently, starting pay for entry-level test cooks and other positions was around $40,000, they said. It rose to about $50,000 last year, but this still isn’t enough to survive on in an expensive city like Boston. During their weekly meetings, employees also realized how overworked and understaffed many of their colleagues were, and how unclear divisions of labor at the company created tensions.
“In the process of coming together and organizing, we’ve learned that this is really systemic,” said Afton Cyrus, deputy food editor in the kids’ department. “A union would be a way to have everything out in the open.”
Cyrus, 39, has a master’s degree from Harvard and $75,000 of student loan debt, and is thankful the rent for the Arlington apartment where she’s lived for 10 years is far below market rate. “I feel like I should not be so worried about just covering basic expenses,” she said.
Test cook Mark Huxsoll, 30, a former line cook in a restaurant, called his ATK duties — preparing food, writing essays, and researching suppliers — a “dream job.” But at one point he had three jobs, working seven days in a row for three months straight as he saved up to buy an engagement ring and move out of his fiancee’s parents’ house.
“Boston is a very vicious, expensive animal,” he said. “I don’t aspire to be a millionaire or to be unreasonable. The most important thing is having a seat at the table, that the employees are represented fairly, and we can have a more clear line of communication.”
Camila Chaparro, 43, a senior cookbook editor, said the vast majority of those seeking to unionize love their jobs. But when people don’t feel valued or compensated fairly, they leave.
“Without us, there isn’t a company,” she said, “and yet we have no say in how it’s run.”