In a letter sent to management this week, ice-cream scoopers from the Vermont flagship Ben & Jerry's store informed them that they planned to unionize. Workers United is the union they're looking to join. It recently won elections in about 300 Starbucks coffee shops.
Marcus Samuelsson in New York City restaurants
In the US, union membership is rare outside of the manufacturing industry. However, it has been increasing in recent years along with a push for improved workers' rights in all industries.
It's surprising that Ben & Jerry's workers, who have been credited with progressive policies ever since the company was founded in 1978, need a union in order to protect their rights. It could be a sign that the staff is taking notice of what's happening in other businesses or a message to the management.
Perhaps what is surprising is that the scoopers of this socially conscious brand weren't unionized from the beginning.
Unilever owns Ben & Jerry's in its entirety. It bought the company in 2000, with the agreement that the social mission would be left in the hands the independent board of the ice-cream maker. Recently, this has been a major challenge.
Ben & Jerry's will sue its owner in the summer of 2022 for, they claim, undermining their social mission, and ultimately, their entire business. It claimed that its customers are aware of it because of its ethical standards, which they promote through the sale of political themed ice-creams.
The company has announced that it will stop selling ice-cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territories by 2021. This is as per the United Nations. Unilever overturned that decision. To avoid political tension in Israel, the company arranged the sale of Ben & Jerry’s Israeli subsidiary to the local distributor. It also granted the distributor the right to package the ice-cream the same way, and to sell it under the long-standing Hebrew and Arabic names.
A New York judge dismissed Ben & Jerry’s claim in August 2022. Unilever's message, which was upheld by US laws, stated that the independent board responsible for Ben & Jerry’s social mission "had no power" to stop sales. The implied message was that it had no authority at all.
Rebeka Melndelsohn is a shift leader and catering manager. She said in a MarketWatch statement that she saw the union as a way to show respect for Ben & Jerry's. "We are a company who stands for social justice and equity. I want to make sure that this message is reflected at all levels of the organization."
Mendelsohn suggests in his statement that the union support Ben & Jerry’s mission and not question it. Even progressive companies can be hurt by workers who seek out support from outside their company or want to protect themselves against conditions that might worsen. Managers have reacted with suspicion to recent unionization decisions by employees of progressive companies such as REI and Kickstarter.
Ben & Jerry's did not respond to a comment request at the time of publication.
It's possible that the Vermont workers' decision is unbarbed. A way to ensure employment policies are in line with company values. It's also likely that Ben & Jerry employees saw how their parent behaved during the summer and that they have a taste of what might happen under pressure.