Organizing a Union in the Disorganized World of Small Restaurants

The stresses of the pandemic and the demands for equity have moved many independent-restaurant workers to start labor-union drives. Will they get results?

The employees of Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis successfully unionized last August, and have inspired other workers to do the same. Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Organizing a Union in the Disorganized World of Small Restaurants

The stresses of the pandemic and the demands for equity have moved many independent-restaurant workers to start labor-union drives. Will they get results?

The employees of Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis successfully unionized last August, and have inspired other workers to do the same. Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

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Worried about returning to work during a pandemic and galvanized by the racial-justice protests throughout their city, 17 cocktail-room employees at Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis told the owners during a staff meeting in June 2020 that they intended to form a union. They wanted personal protective equipment, overtime pay and antiracism training.

“We all felt a sense of urgency and, I mean, legitimate fear,” said Krystle D’Alencar, a bartender and server. “Many of us, including me, live paycheck to paycheck.”

The owners, Jon Kreidler and Dan Oskey, pushed back on Tattersall’s social media accounts: “We don’t believe a union is necessary, nor is it in the best interest of our employees or our company.”

But two months later, after much organizing and the threat of a boycott by customers who supported the effort, the employees voted for a union, 19 to 3. They receive regular requests from restaurant workers around the country asking how to start their own. And Tattersall’s owners say they are working to reach a contract deal as quickly as possible.

“This is our first time going through” a union drive, Mr. Kreidler said last week. “We realize this is the employees’ decision. We support their decision.”

The past year and a half has been a watershed for labor organizing, as the pandemic and a national discourse on racial equity have turned a harsh spotlight on low pay and poor working conditions across the American economy. One of the most surprising places those campaigns have surfaced is independent restaurants, bars and bakeries, where unions are rare.

In March, employees of Colectivo Coffee, which has 18 locations in Chicago and Wisconsin, held an election to form their own union; it ended in a 99-99 tie, and the union that is working to represent them, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494, is now fighting to have challenged ballots included in the count. At JuiceLand, a small Texas chain, about 40 employees went on strike in May after several workers called in sick, forcing some of the remaining production staff to work long shifts on Mother’s Day. While they try to drum up support for a union among the other 500 or so workers, the company has raised wages for hourly workers.

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A union election at Colectivo Coffee, which has locations in Chicago and Wisconsin, ended in a tie — but the push to organize continues.Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

“Honestly, in my 20 years of organizing, I have never seen such a willingness” to organize among restaurant workers, said Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, a national advocacy group for service workers and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley.

How successful and long-lasting these efforts will be, however, remains unclear. The nascent unions are testing grounds where workers will learn over time whether, or how, they can change a decentralized industry.

Substandard wages, long hours and little to no benefits have become norms in the restaurant business. And in 2020, food service had one of the lowest unionization rates of any American economic sector — 1.2 percent, versus an average of 10.8 percent for all wage and salary workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the pandemic’s onset, as diners rushed to support local restaurants with delivery orders and gift card purchases, many workers felt that no one was looking out for their well-being, or even safety.

“This pandemic gave us all time to sit and reflect on how the hell we were able to get cut down to this place of life or death so quickly and easily,” said Mx. D’Alencar, 34, the Tattersall Distillery server.

Establishing a union is a complicated process that can take years: It typically involves creating an organizing committee, getting workers to sign union cards, winning an election and successfully negotiating a contract. Unionizing restaurants is even harder, said Natalia Tylim, a server at a West Village restaurant and a founder of the Restaurant Organizing Project run by the Democratic Socialists of America.

High turnover makes it hard to build an employee base. Divisions frequently arise between workers in the dining room and those in the kitchen, who are often compensated differently. Because operations vary from restaurant to restaurant, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all contract.

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Natalia Tylim, a founder of the Restaurant Organizing Project overseen by the Democratic Socialists of America, said organizing independent restaurants poses unique challenges. Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Independent restaurants pose their own special barriers: Their staffs can be too small to attract interest from existing unions, and because employees often have personal relationships with managers and owners, they may be unwilling to rock the boat.

“People feel an allegiance to a small business because it is the underdog,” Ms. Tylim said. “There is a dynamic in the workplace where people feel genuinely, or performatively, like a family.”

Yet it’s these small businesses that often don’t have mechanisms that help employees report harassment or ask for raises. “The worst conditions I have worked in have always been the smaller restaurants, personally,” said Diego, a line cook in Queens who declined to give his surname for fear of losing his job.

The pandemic, and the difficulty many restaurants now face in hiring, present a distinct opportunity for unions, Ms. Tylim said. Workers “are starting to think about what they contribute, what they are worth.”

In February 2020, before the lockdowns began, the renowned Tartine Bakery in California made headlines after its workers — dissatisfied with their pay and what they called the management’s lack of transparency announced their intent to unionize. They narrowly won an election, but challenges to several ballots held up the process until last March, when the results were certified and the union prevailed. The unit expects to begin negotiations soon on a contract, said Matthew Torres, 24, a former Tartine barista who still belongs to the union.

Because Tartine is well-known nationally, he said, its union has served as a powerful propellant for organizing elsewhere.

Employees at some restaurants opt to join a larger union to tap into its many resources, as Tartine’s did with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. For both the longshore union and Unite Here Local 17, unionizing restaurants and other food businesses is relatively new territory.

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Sheigh Freeburg said many restaurant workers contacted his organization, Unite Here Local 17, about unionizing last year. Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

During the pandemic, restaurant workers “were interested in organizing in a way they weren’t before,” said Sheigh Freeberg, the secretary and treasurer of Unite Here Local 17.

What’s distinct about many of these fledgling drives, Mr. Freeberg added, is that they are not taking on corporations worth millions of dollars. Most independent restaurants operate on slim profit margins. For those workers, “it is about respect on the job, or being able to have your schedule ahead of when it comes out,” he said. “Stuff that doesn’t cost any money.”

Still, many recent organizing efforts stalled or failed.

After working at N7, a French bistro in New Orleans, for more than three years, Luna Vicini was fired last October from her job as floor manager, with a note saying that the business needed a manager who prioritized profitability. She believes it was because she had organized workers around concerns about pay, transparency and safety protocols. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

Following Ms. Vicini’s exit, she said, nine employees went on strike; the restaurant shut down for several days before the owners, Aaron Walker and Yuki Yamaguchi, reopened with a mostly new staff. Ms. Vicini hoped to get her job back and help unionize N7, but the strike fizzled as some employees returned to work or took jobs elsewhere.

“I think that people left the strike because they couldn’t see what it would be like if it worked out,” said Ms. Vicini, 31. “And they could see what it would be like if it didn’t work out.”

At American Beauty, a steakhouse in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, six servers and two former employees picketed the restaurant last March after the owners reduced the percentage of the tip pool allocated to servers and other front-of-the-house workers. The restaurant said the move was intended to give the kitchen staff a bigger share of that pool; the picketers said the business should simply raise wages for kitchen workers.

Sam Sachs, a former server who joined in the strike, said he couldn’t rally enough interest in a union. Not everyone, he said, has the financial security to take the risk of speaking out.

Servers “are some of the highest-paid hourly employees in the industry,” said Mr. Sachs, 25.That does afford us the privilege to be able to demand our dignity, because maybe we have been able to save potentially a little more.”

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At Cork & Fork in Pennsylvania, Tiffany Ramsey and 18 others lost a union election, but they believe the effort pushed the restaurant to make changes. Credit…Dave Cooper for The New York Times

But a union-organizing drive can fall short and still engender change. In July 2020, 19 employees at Cork & Fork, an Italian restaurant with two locations in central Pennsylvania, tried to form a union to address pay, communication and scheduling. They brought it to a vote, and lost. But the owners later convened an all-staff meeting where workers could voice their concerns, and removed a manager whom employees had complained about.

“They know we will just keep trying to unionize if things don’t change,” said a server, Tiffany Ramsey, 35.

To help coalesce workers across many restaurants, citywide groups have formed recently in places like Detroit, Memphis and New York.

The Restaurant Workers’ Council in New York, founded by 12 restaurant employees in March 2020, aims to force the creation of a multi-employer bargaining unit. They plan to picket several employers one by one, creating an incentive for the owners to bargain together.

“If you are only focused on the restaurant at hand that you work at, you are narrowing the scope of your own reach,” said Jason, 42, a council member, who did not provide his surname for fear of losing his job as a waiter in a Brooklyn restaurant.

One worker at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan, who asked not to be identified because she is undocumented, said that even though employees like her are often paid the least because of their vulnerable status, she has long been afraid to join a union drive at her workplace. Now, as a member of the Restaurant Workers’ Council, she feels there is safety in numbers.

But Ms. Jayaraman, of One Fair Wage, believes that unionizing can be an inefficient means for creating industrywide change.

“We don’t think you can organize shop by shop by shop,” she said. She would prefer that workers and owners push for federal policies like raising the minimum wage.

At Augie’s Coffee, a small chain in Southern California, employees chose the union path, with different results for different workers.

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Slow Bloom is a Southern California coffee shop run by 16 former employees of Augie’s Coffee, who tried to unionize and were laid off as the company closed all its locations.Credit…Ryan Young for The New York Times

About 45 of them began organizing in May 2020, saying that the owners, Austin and Andy Amento, had repeatedly denied wage increases and abruptly tried to fire several workers during the pandemic. That July, the Amentos shut all five locations, eventually making the closings permanent. (They did not respond to requests for comment.)

A few months later, 16 former employees started their own coffee shop, Slow Bloom, which will open this fall in Redlands, Calif. Workers share in the ownership and profits, and have formed a union that bargains with an elected executive board.

“It is all good and well to say you want everyone’s voice to be heard,” said Matthew Soliz, a Slow Bloom worker who helped lead the union drive at Augie’s. But then you have to translate a union’s demands into a sustainable business.

“I have only ever made lattes,” said Mr. Soliz, 29. “I am learning all of this live.”

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