Austin Restaurant Workers Launch Rare Union Campaign In The Industry

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

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

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

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

Restaurant Workers United said it had rounded up a “supermajority” of support at each of the three restaurants, and that 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 votes cast in order to prevail.

Via 313 could not immediately be reached for comment on the organizing effort. Founded in Austin by the brothers Zane and Brandon Hunt in 2011, Via 313 may be going national in the years to come. The Utah-based restaurant investment fund Savory took a stake in the company in 2020 with an eye toward expansion beyond Texas.

“I know how rare this is. I know the risk that it is. … But I think it’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of.”

– Ashley Glover, Via 313 bartender

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

Henry Epperson, a cashier at the Via 313 on Austin’s East Side, said he hopes unions can improve the work in a field not known for collective bargaining. He said there’s been an assumption in the industry that there will always be workers willing to withstand erratic pay and difficult conditions ― an assumption that’s been tested during the pandemic as restaurants struggled to retain staff.

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

Epperson said the campaign has ambitions beyond the pizzerias.

“The goal is not just to win at Via but hopefully win all over the place,” he said. “I’m from Austin. I’ve already kind of started talking about this with friends I grew up with who are in the industry, and they’re very excited to hear about it. It’s playing into this larger [labor] movement that’s starting to take off again in this country.”

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

Many labor groups have advocated for restaurant workers over the years, such as the worker center Restaurant Opportunities Center United and the Fight for $15 campaign funded by the Service Employees International Union. Those groups have played a crucial role in passing minimum wage legislation around the country and bringing attention to the struggles of workers 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 for years unions have complained is broken. Ben Reynolds, an organizer with the Austin group, said many service workers seem eager to try right now.

“Even where there is big fear, they’re thinking, ‘OK, it’s worth it, let’s give it a shot,’” Reynolds said. “As we see with Starbucks, the election is not this panacea, but they can be a very useful organizing tool. If Starbucks [Workers United] hadn’t won then they wouldn’t have started this wave.”

“For years they thought they could just chew people up and spit them out and take on a new batch of people.”

– Henry Epperson, restaurant cashier

It would be difficult to unionize the industry on a large scale in part because it’s so splintered, made up 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 hold earlier this summer when the air-conditioning unit wasn’t working at her store, making the kitchen even hotter than usual. She said workers in the front of the house like herself were bringing cold towels to their co-workers in the back.

“Savory doesn’t care. They don’t see you,” Glover said. “They see you as a number, man. Another thing in the system.”

Workers said Savory’s ambitions beyond the city make it a good time for them to try to form a union at Via 313’s original stores. Savory is backed by the private-equity firm Mercato Partners, and Glover said she fears working conditions are already becoming an afterthought in an expansion of the brand.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re going to open 700 other stores. If the ones in Austin, the roots, aren’t good, then it’ll just be another shitty pizza place,” she said. “If they really do care about money, they would take care of us.”



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