Austin restaurant workers plan to unionize local pizzerias in new organizing effort

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Workers at a trio of famous pizzerias in Austin, Texas, did something rarely seen at local, stand-alone restaurants Thursday: they informed their managers that they intended to form a union.

Workers at Via 313, an Austin-born restaurant group that dishes up Detroit-style pizza, are organizing with Restaurant Workers United, an independent labor group formed during the pandemic. The union says it petitioned the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday to hold elections at the restaurant group’s three sit-down locations in the city.

Some restaurant workers are federated in the U.S., but they often work in hotels or eateries attached to other large, unionized properties, such as airports. And while Starbucks baristas are organizing stores across the country, the Austin effort includes a different crop of food-service workers: bartenders, servers, hosts, cooks and dishwashers.

“I know how rare it is. I know it’s a risk. I could definitely be blacklisted,” said Ashley Glover, a bartender at Via 313’s store in the city’s Oak Hill neighborhood, who owned six Have worked in the industry for years. “But I think it’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of.”

Restaurant Workers United said it has secured a “largest majority” of support at each of the three restaurants, and it intends to push for higher wages, paid leave and reliable scheduling, among other priorities. If the Labor Board schedules elections, the union would need to win a majority of the votes cast in order to prevail.

Via 313 could not immediately be reached for comment on the event. Founded in Austin in 2011 by brothers Zane and Brandon Hunt, 313 may go national in the years to come. Utah-based restaurant investment fund Savory took a stake in the company in 2020 as it looks to expand beyond Texas.

I know how rare this is. I know it’s a risk. … but I think it’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of. Ashley Glover, via 313 Bartender

The company already has brushes with Restaurant Workers United. The group held a protest earlier this year saying workers felt pressure to go to work when they were sick, and called on the company to improve sick leave and COVID-19 safety protocols. Some employees who signed a petition to the management were suspended but later reinstated.

Henry Epperson, cashier at Via 313 on Austin’s East Side, said he hoped unions could improve work in an area not known for collective bargaining. He said there has been a belief in the industry that there will always be employees prepared to face uncertain pay and difficult situations – a notion that has been tested during the pandemic as restaurants struggle to retain staff.

“For years they thought they could just chew on people and spit them out and take on a new batch of people,” said Epperson, who is studying history and sociology at the University of Texas Said about “But it takes a lot of skill to be able to do this job and be able to do this job. We really want respect and respect for the people who work in the restaurant.”

Epperson said the campaign has ambitions beyond the pizzeria.

“The goal is not just to win in Viaan, but hopefully win everywhere,” he added. “I’m from Austin. I’ve started talking about this with friends I grew up with, who are in the industry, and they’re so excited to hear about it. It’s playing into this big [labor] The movement that is starting again in this country.”

Austin’s organizing campaign is part of a string of recent labor campaigns run independently by workers rather than by established unions. Such efforts come with drawbacks—these groups lack the staff and resources of unions that have been around for decades—but they can neutralize the company’s portrayal of the union as a “third party.” Independent unions recently won historic elections at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in New York City and a Trader Joe’s grocery store in Massachusetts.

Several labor groups have advocated for restaurant workers over the years, such as the Fight for Worker Center, a $15 campaign funded by Restaurant Opportunity Center United and the Service Employees International Union. Those groups have been instrumental in passing minimum wage laws across the country and drawing attention to workers’ struggles in the industry, including harassment.

But Restaurant Workers United is going a different route by trying to unionize workers through elections run by the National Labor Relations Board and then securing a union contract—a process that unions have complained about for years. , has broken down. Ben Reynolds, an organizer for the Austin group, said many service workers are eager to try now.

“Even where there’s a big scare, they’re thinking, ‘Okay, it’s worth it, let’s give it a shot,’” Reynolds said. “As we see with Starbucks, polls are not a panacea, but they can be a very useful organizing tool. If Starbucks [Workers United] Had he not won, he would not have started this wave.

For years they thought they could just chew on people and spit them out and have a new batch of people. Henry Epperson, restaurant cashier

Unionizing the industry at large would be difficult because it is so scattered, consisting of hundreds of thousands of individual, independent restaurants as well as major franchises. But trying to unionize a restaurant group would be one way to establish a presence in a place like Austin.

Glover said the organizing campaign really took off earlier this summer when the air-conditioning unit at her store wasn’t working, leaving the kitchen even hotter than usual. She said the workers at the front of the house, like herself, were bringing cold towels to their co-workers from behind.

“Savvy doesn’t care. They don’t see you,” said Glover. “They see you as a number, man. One more thing in the System. ,

Workers said Savery’s ambitions beyond the city make it a good time for them to attempt to form a union on Via 313’s original store. Savory is backed by private-equity firm Mercato Partners, and Glover said he fears expanding the brand to working conditions is already becoming an idea.

“It doesn’t matter that they are going to open another 700 stores. If in Austin, the roots aren’t good, it’ll be just another shiny pizza place,” she said. “If they really care about the money, they’ll take care of us.”

This article was originally published on HuffPost and has been updated.