Organizing a union in the disorganized world of small restaurants

By Priya Krishna

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 anti-racism 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, 19-3. 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, 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.

“Honestly, in my 20 years of organizing, I have never seen such a willingness” to organize among restaurant workers, said Saru Jayaraman, 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%, versus an average of 10.8% 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 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.

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,” 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, 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.

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

What’s distinct about many of these fledgling drives, 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 in 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.)

At American Beauty, a steakhouse in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice, 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.

But 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.

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, California. 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 Soliz, 29. “I am learning all of this live.”

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