Inside the Effort to Unionize Square Roots, Kimbal Musk’s Vertical Farming Company | Civil Eats

Inside the Effort to Unionize Square Roots, Kimbal Musk’s Vertical Farming Company

A small team of urban farmers is trying to unionize in Brooklyn, hoping to increase their voice in the workplace. But if union drives at other Musk-led companies are any indication, they face an uphill battle.

a square roots worker packs basil inside the vertical farm company's facility in Brooklyn in 2018. (Photo by Preston Keres, USDA)

A Square Roots farmer packs basil inside the vertical farm company’s facility in Brooklyn in 2018. (Photo by Preston Keres, USDA)

July 24, 2023 update: Square Roots CEO Tobias Peggs notified employees that the company was shutting down the majority of its operations and laying off most of its employees. Square Roots said it is “changing its business model to what it calls, ‘farming as a service.'”

In a parking lot off a busy street in Brooklyn, a team of urban farmers weaves in and out of a dozen nondescript shipping containers. Inside, a handful of workers move gingerly through vertical towers growing herbs such as basil and cilantro in climate-controlled conditions, lit by pink LED lights. Workers wheel boxes of packaged herbs around the asphalt, from the repurposed buildings to delivery vehicles, disappearing behind the white units. Nearby, a fleet of bright blue Tesla Revels, intended for ride-sharing, gleams in the sun.

This is the Brooklyn operation of Square Roots, a venture capital-backed vertical farming company founded by Kimbal Musk—a techno-optimist like his older brother, Tesla CEO Elon Musk—who has aimed for optimal growing conditions in the high-tech facilities of Square Roots. But despite his ability to provide the best climate for crops, he hasn’t had the same outcome with the people he employs; six months ago, Square Roots workers announced they would be petitioning to form a union.

The 14 farm employees at the Brooklyn site manage everything on the farm from facilities maintenance to growing, packing, and delivering the fresh herbs. After a few turbulent years, disrupted by the pandemic and safety concerns, those workers want a bigger say in how the company is run. Over the course of the past six months, Civil Eats spoke to three current and former Square Roots employees about why they petitioned to form a union; we granted them anonymity to protect them from potential retaliation. Over a period of four months, Square Roots declined repeated requests to comment for this article.

The container farms at Square Roots' Brooklyn facility in 2018. The operation is largely similar today. (Photo by Preston Keres, USDA)

The container farms at Square Roots’ Brooklyn facility in 2018. The operation is largely similar today. (Photo by Preston Keres, USDA)

Asked why they were unionizing, one employee said, “we wanted to have a voice [in decision-making].” They added, “people who work on the farm all the time, instead of being consulted about decisions that will affect production, are just informed about them.”

The union drive—which is seeking recognition from the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB)—is part of a nationwide labor movement that has taken shape during the pandemic, following a decades-long decline in union membership. From Starbucks to Kellogg’s factories, and from farmworkers to fast food employees, workers in every part of the food system have staged strikes, walkouts, and organized their workplaces for the first time.

“We wanted to have a voice [in decision-making]. . . . People who work on the farm all the time, instead of being consulted about decisions that will affect production, are just informed about them.”

If the employees at Square Roots are successful—and results will come in after they hold an election later this year—it will be the first company in the Musk extended universe to unionize. While Kimbal hasn’t vocally condemned organized labor, Elon has repeatedly expressed explicitly anti-union views, and both brothers have suppressed labor activity in their own enterprises.

If Square Roots workers formally unionize, they will become the second farmworker union in New York State history, following the establishment of a union at Pindar Vineyards in 2021. As Square Roots approaches a major expansion, this represents a pivotal moment for the company. It also raises larger questions about a whole class of workers in today’s rapidly expanding indoor-farming industry.

Rising Tensions

Growing relatively local food in reused shipping containers on the outskirts of cities and selling to a high-end clientele has become a tempting business model for investors. In a 2020 interview with CNN, Square Roots CEO Tobias Peggs announced that “a lot of smart money and capital is entering the space.” And a lot of money has entered the indoor farming industry—after four previous funding rounds, Square Roots received an additional $25 million in March 2021, their biggest yet.

Even so, compared to other indoor farming operations, Square Roots is still quite small. Plenty made headlines earlier this year with a $400 million fundraising round that brought Walmart to its board of directors; Netherlands-based InFarm is valued at $1 billion; and Bowery, the largest vertical farming operation in the U.S., topped a $2 billion valuation in 2021.

Square Roots’ Brooklyn site is one of three locations; the company also has a facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in January opened a new location in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The employees with whom Civil Eats spoke are part of the Brooklyn farm team, a crew of growers, packers, delivery workers, and facilities employees who manage the operations. The company’s central team—made up of business directors, HR personnel, engineering staff, and other administrators—works mostly remotely. The efforts to unionize were driven by tensions between the farm team and the central team: employees that Civil Eats spoke to explained that they often felt like their voices were not heard—and that by ignoring their field-level expertise, Square Roots was hindering its own success.

Multiple sources referred to an incident where the company’s central team didn’t accept an employee’s design suggestions. The employee had rerouted and shortened piping to prevent the spread of plant disease, a problem that the farm team had worked hard to solve, but their designs were ultimately not implemented. In another example, employees said the central team was considering reducing the size of their packaging for the herbs, a move that increased the amount of time packers would have to spend on their tasks. After fielding the packers’ concerns, the worker said the business team did it anyway, and the farm team believes that it may have backfired, slowing workflow and potentially reducing sales.

Employees also say they have felt pressure to grow more than is reasonable. “Farm management level and people on the business side have meetings [that we’re not in] and set yield targets for all of our crops,” says one employee. Several employees said some of those goals were simply unattainable because they were limited by the plants’ growth and space, “we found that their expectations were [set] without evidence,” the employee added.

a square roots worker transplants a basil seedling in Brooklyn in 2018. (Photo by Preston Keres, USDA)

A Square Roots farmer transplants a basil seedling in Brooklyn in 2018. (Photo by Preston Keres, USDA)

It was doubly frustrating for the farm team when they felt systems weren’t efficient. One employee described their day-to-day: growing, harvesting, and packing herbs for deliveries that are negotiated on a weekly basis with local supermarkets. But only produce that is sold in advance leaves the farm; what’s not sold is left in a storage area, either to be donated or composted by the farm team—a visible reminder of inefficiencies on the business side, they said. When we spoke to this employee, they said “not everything we grow even gets sold, a lot gets donated, but the pressure is still on us.”

Unionizing, the employees say, would elevate their concerns to management, and would give them greater job security, transitioning away from “at-will” employment toward a contract.

Bei Wang, a Square Roots employee who left in December after helping to spearhead their unionization efforts, told Civil Eats that, over the past few years, workers have been fired for reasons that employees in the union drive believe didn’t always seem “justified.”

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In one case described by Wang and confirmed by other current and former employees, farm trainees in the now-defunct apprenticeship program asked about COVID safety protocols for the cramped shipping containers when they were asked to return to work in late spring of 2020. After an unsatisfying response from the company, the trainees considered an informal attempt at collective bargaining, hoping to negotiate their working conditions with management as a group, Wang said and other employees confirmed. But when management caught on, the whole team was laid off.

Workers who had returned after the layoff “were a little traumatized for speaking up earlier in the pandemic.”

While many were invited to reapply, and some were re-hired as full-time employees, the move had a lasting impact on morale: Wang says that workers who had returned after the layoff “were a little traumatized for speaking up earlier in the pandemic.”

Although Square Roots declined to provide timely comment on the record to the allegations made, a spokesperson emphasized the company’s significant COVID safety protocols, and pointed to a May 2022 blog post detailing their worker-safety efforts. Their six-point strategy outlines a plan for paid, at-home quarantines, full medical benefits, vaccine requirements, testing, mandatory masking, and clear communication around exposure.

Workers recounted other incidents. Wang said she sometimes felt pressured to quit because she didn’t work fast enough. All workers are subject to tightly monitored time logs, where they record the duration of each task. When they move slower than average, they may be called in for “labor data check-ins” about their performance, the employees said. Wang described an incident where a farm manager who had voiced concerns about the communication between the farm team and central team was demoted and then fired.

Labor Uprising

Square Roots’ workers care about their jobs, said Daniel Byers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) organizer advising their union drive. “They care about agriculture, they want to make this a sustainable job, they want some security and a contract,” Byers said. “They’re fighting to have a voice on the job.”

Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at Queens College, says he has seen this sentiment among small companies and young workers. “[Fighting for a democratized workplace] is very much in line with what we’ve seen at other companies,” says Freeman. “What’s common here is a very high-level commitment to the project—wanting to contribute, even being proud of the enterprise, but feeling shut out of the decision-making process.”

At its core, Square Roots is still a startup: effectively a farm operating with the ethos of a tech organization—at the axis of two industries that have been notoriously hard to unionize. Big tech firms have a mixed record on expanding employee rights. In some cases, they’ve remained silent, discouraging software engineers’ unionization; in other cases, they’ve been more active, denying employee status for gig workers or hiring anti-union lawyers to oppose retail workers who have filed for an election. Meanwhile, agriculture maintains the lowest unionization rate of any industry in the country—although that number grew sharply between 2020 and 2021.

Notably, Square Roots employees, who work year-round and report a starting wage around $22 per hour, are not typical; the average agricultural worker is seasonally employed, earns $14 per hour, and has historically been excluded from general labor laws.

The Great Resignation and the accelerating wave of union drives may be part of the same trend, a flurry of labor activity that stems from an increasingly fed-up workforce and renewed positive societal perception of unions. Emboldened by a tight job market, where there are more jobs than workers, Square Roots growers are committed to staying and taking on even more responsibility at the company.

Union Drive at Big Green

Square Roots is not the first Kimbal Musk project to raise questions about labor. At the beginning of the pandemic, Musk initiated a mass layoff at his restaurant Next Door, right after the workers’ shared “family fund” mysteriously disappeared. At Musk’s school garden nonprofit Big Green, workers also wanted more opportunities to give feedback and influence decision-making in daily operations. Early last summer, program coordinators across the country announced their intent to unionize, reasoning that it would give them greater leverage in decision-making processes that were usually reserved for the board.

“Managers would hand down orders without our input, or without taking our input seriously,” former Big Green program manager Emma Dietrich told Civil Eats. “We didn’t believe that these decisions were best for our communities, and we were tired of our voices being overlooked when we felt like we could best advocate for our teachers and schools.”

Kimbal Musk at the WSJ Future of Everything Festival in 2018.

Kimbal Musk at the WSJ Future of Everything Festival in 2018.

According to reporting by Vice and from the local news outlet Tennessee Lookout, Big Green’s response to the union was swift and punitive. Some workers, such as Odie Avery, told Vice that they were punished for speaking out publicly about the union, all were forbidden from speaking about it at work, and others were terminated for “going against the organization’s mission.” Dietrich says that two months later, the nonprofit underwent a major “company restructure” that transitioned their work from hands-on programming to grants-based projects.

Dietrich explained that schools were encouraged to apply for $2,000 grants that would fund capital projects like building benches or purchasing yoga mats. The grants were a “drop in the bucket” compared to Big Green’s huge investments in establishing garden projects, Dietrich said, each of which she estimated to cost $30,000 to $50,000. The program coordinator position was terminated and all 10 educators were fired in September, just before schools reopened.

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The Communication Workers of America (CWA), which represents the Big Green Union, asserted that these were clear examples of unfair labor practices—workers in a union drive are protected from retaliation by their employers—but they will need the National Labor Relations Board to hear their case to win back their jobs. As of now, the NLRB attorney assigned to their case, Noor Alam, confirmed that they are still awaiting a hearing. Meanwhile, Big Green has made its philanthropic grants program more permanent, further reducing workers’ odds of retaining their jobs. Late last year, the company launched a new blockchain-based Big Green Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) as a “first-of-its-kind experiment to radically reconceive and restructure grant-making.”

Square Roots Squares Up

While Big Green has seemingly collapsed in the face of a union drive, Square Roots is continuing to scale up, having opened its new Kenosha plant earlier this year. If the future of farming is technology-assisted, then Square Roots’ employees hope to show that it can also be worker-led.

On December 13, 2021, UFCW president Robert Newell called Square Roots HQ to notify the company of employees’ intent to organize and filed a formal petition for recognition with the PERB. In the months since, Square Roots management, union representatives, and PERB officials have met repeatedly to determine the course of their organizing.

“[The workers] care about agriculture, they want to make this a sustainable job, they want some security and a contract. They’re fighting to have a voice on the job.”

At the core of their current conflict is the interpretation of PERB’s State Employment Relations Act (SERA), which was passed in 2010. In 2019, the state legislature passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, ensuring the right of agricultural and farmworkers to collectively bargain among other protections. The following year, the PERB amended SERA to guarantee farmworkers the same rights as other industries.

While the PERB declined to comment on the meetings, citing their protocols, the UFCW has confirmed that they are fighting for recognition of the seven growers. Because SERA is a new bill, there’s little precedent that either side can rely on to build their case. Byers told Civil Eats that “the employer has not voluntarily recognized the union,” and they continue to await results that will determine their next steps.

In response to a final request for comment, Square Roots CEO Tobias Peggs invited Civil Eats “to spend a week on the farm with us, to see how it all works,” but declined to provide on-the-record comments in time for publication.

Byers and the union remain hopeful. “They have a chance at Square Roots to do the right thing,” he said. “They have a chance to honor what the workers want, to make it a better place to work for everybody. We hope that they seize that opportunity.”

lucy dean stockton is a writer and farm who divides her time between New York City (Lenape homeland) and Western Massachusetts (Pocumtuc homeland), and always uses her middle name. Read more >

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