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Chocolatier makes a sweet treat out of solidarity

One of the small-batch chocolate confections handcrafted at the Rabble-Rouser factory in Montpelier, Vermont, by members of AFSCME Local 1369. (Photo credit: Rabble-Rouser Chocolate & Craft Company)
By Pete Levine ·
Chocolatier makes a sweet treat out of solidarity
Treats from Rabble-Rouser like the white chocolate Love Bar make a great gift for Valentine’s Day and year-round. (Member-provided photos)

Rabble-Rouser Chocolate & Craft Company in Montpelier, Vermont, describes their mission as “tasteful social change.”

Here, “tasteful” refers not only to the delectable handmade chocolate confections, granola, coffee creations and other treats they produce, but to a philosophy that puts their progressive values on equal footing with making a delicious product.

A small cooperative of about 30 people, Rabble-Rouser’s team is divided into two kinds of employees: “worker-owners” and “non-owners.”

A new employee, who is hired as much for their enthusiasm and willingness to learn the business as for any particular set of skills, starts their career as a non-owner. They’ll enter a training program for about two years, after which they can choose to become a “rising owner,” putting them on the path to have a stake in the organization.

However, regardless of whether you’re a newbie or a long-timer, whether you’re tempering chocolate or boxing orders for delivery, Rabble-Rouser believes: “Through our shared hard work we hope to create a new culture of business, leisure, diversity, receptivity and humanity.”

Rabble-Rouser’s products mirror their mission – and their moniker: there’s the liberally sea-salted 70% dark chocolate Bernie Bar, the lemon-ginger and toasted-pecan Pride Bar, the peppermint-raspberry-white chocolate Love Bar and one anatomically inspired chocolate treat, a portion of whose proceeds advance reproductive justice.

Why would such a seemingly inclusive, hospitable (not to mention mouthwatering) workplace need a union? Why did the Rabble-Rouser’s workers – both worker-owners and non-owners –recently decide to affiliate with AFSCME Local 1369 (Council 93)?

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David Wheeler, a rising worker-owner at Rabble-Rouser Chocolate & Craft Company.

“We just saw union membership as a way to further strengthen the democratic principles that we believe in,” says Ryan Geary, a worker-owner and artist who has been with Rabble-Rouser for three years and was involved their organizing efforts.

“As much as we’re trying to change power dynamics and operate from a place of equity,” says Geary, “we wanted to come up with these rules and protocols … being that we’re humans, we’re not perfect.”

Rabble-Rouser doesn’t have a human resources department and they don’t have managers. What they do have, as of August 2021, is a union contract – actually two, one for worker-owners and one for those who are not yet owners – that spells out a process by which decisions are made, grievances are resolved and the future of the company is forged.

“Really, it’s a way to shape our policies that gives everybody a fair chance to give their input,” says Geary, who, in November, became president of Local 1369.

AFSCME Council 93 Executive Director Mark Bernard was happy to welcome Rabble-Rouser into the AFSCME family and sees parallels between their mission and AFSCME’s.

“The values shared by the workers at Rabble-Rouser and their motivation for forming a union are admirable and inspiring,” said Bernard. “They could have gone to any number of unions to accomplish their goals. We’re proud they chose us and view their choice as a testament to AFSCME values and our storied history of being rabble rousers ourselves.”

David Wheeler joined Rabble-Rouser six months ago after a 21-year career in the U.S. Army. Wheeler, who specialized in public affairs in the military, had moved to Vermont and was excited when he saw a job posting for Rabble-Rouser. But he didn’t have any chocolate or retail experience.

“It was a weird ad in the newspaper,” recalled Wheeler. “There were openings for a barista, a chocolate maker and a logistics person. I called them and said ‘Guess what? All three of these is not public affairs, but if you’re willing to teach me, I’m a quick learner. I thought it was so cool to be able to be carefree and make chocolate. I dug their vibes.”

When he applied, Rabble-Rouser didn’t want a résumé.

“They wanted me to write a one-page story about myself. I started by quoting Pink Floyd: ‘I’m just a lost soul swimming in a fish bowl.’”

He got the job.

“I came from a modest upbringing. Everyone in my family was proud I served in the military, but no one could imagine they could say they were a small business owner. That opportunity is a dream almost.”

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Rabble-Rouser workers celebrate their affiliation with AFSCME Local 1369 (Council 93). (Photo credit: Vermont AFL-CIO)

Wheeler appreciates working at a place where everyone is treated equally, where diversity and inclusivity are prized and where everything is above board, thanks to his union contract.

He says, “Our union keeps our feet to the flames.”

So far, his time with this union shop has been pretty sweet.

“They trained me. They helped me adapt my military skills,” says Wheeler, adding, “in January, I was offered to be a rising owner, which has me going through meetings to make sure I understand the process.”

Geary believes in the power of small businesses and wonders whether there will be a trend toward organizing.

“As we see a lot of worker-owned cooperatives pop up and businesses becoming worker-owned, it’s wonderful. But just because something is worker-owned doesn’t mean it’s run by the majority of workers,” Geary says. “So the values that we see in worker ownership connect well with organized labor.”

A small workforce that takes deep pride in their jobs – powered by belonging to a union – may pay dividends in the future.

In the meantime, Rabble-Rouser’s union workers remain focused on making positive social change while producing award-winning goodies that have their customers coming back for more.

Speaking of which, if you’re interested in trying Rabble-Rouser’s treats, AFSCME members enjoy a 10% discount (AFL-CIO members will receive a 5% discount and non-AFL-CIO affiliated union members receive a 2% discount), with proof of union membership.

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