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

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Workers at a trio of well-known pizza restaurants in Austin, Texas, did something rarely seen at local stand-alone restaurants on Thursday: They informed their managers of their intention to form a union.

Workers at Via 313, an Austin-born restaurant group that bakes Detroit-style pizza, have organized with Restaurant Workers United, an independent labor group formed during the pandemic. The union said it submitted petitions to the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday seeking to hold elections at the restaurant group’s three venues in the city.

Some restaurant workers are unionized in the United States, but they often work in restaurants attached to hotels or other large unionized properties, such as airports. And while Starbucks baristas organize stores across the country, Austin’s effort involves another generation of restaurant workers: bartenders, servers, hosts, cooks and dishwashers.

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

Restaurant Workers United said it had amassed a “supermajority” of support at each of the three restaurants and intended to push for higher wages, paid time off and reliable hours, among other priorities. If the labor board holds elections, the union will need to obtain a majority of the votes cast to win.

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

“I know how rare it is. I know how risky it is. … But I think it’s a very beautiful thing to be a part of.

– Ashley Glover, Via 313 bartender

The company has previously had contact with Restaurant Workers United. The group held a demonstration earlier this year, saying workers felt pressured to come to 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, cashier at Via 313 on Austin’s East Side, said he hopes unions can improve work in an area not known for collective bargaining. He said there was an assumption in the industry that there will always be workers willing to put up with erratic wages and harsh conditions – an assumption that was tested during the pandemic as restaurants struggled to retain their staff.

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

Epperson said the campaign has ambitions beyond pizzerias.

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

Austin’s organizing campaign is one of a series of recent labor campaigns led independently by workers rather than established unions. Such efforts have drawbacks ― these groups lack the staff and resources of unions that have existed for decades ― but they can neutralize a company’s representation of the union as a “third party.” Independent unions recently won historic elections at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in New York and at a Trader Joe’s grocery store in Massachusetts.

Many labor groups have stood up for restaurant workers over the years, such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center United workers’ center and the Fight for $15 campaign funded by the Service Employees International Union. These groups played a crucial role in passing minimum wage legislation across the country and brought attention to the struggles of industrial workers, including harassment.

But Restaurant Workers United is taking a different route, trying to organize workers through elections held by the National Labor Relations Board and then securing a union contract — a process that unions have complained about for years is broken. Ben Reynolds, an Austin Group organizer, said many service workers seem eager to try at the moment.

“Even where there’s great fear, they think, ‘OK, it’s worth it, let’s give it a try,'” Reynolds said. “As we see with Starbucks, elections are not that 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 group of people.”

– Henry Epperson, restaurant cashier

It would be difficult to unionize the industry on a large scale, in part because it is so fragmented, made up of hundreds of thousands of individual and independent restaurants as well as large franchises. But trying to unionize a group of restaurants would be a way to establish a presence in a place like Austin.

Glover said the organizing drive really took hold earlier this summer when the air conditioning unit in his store didn’t work, making the kitchen even hotter than usual. She said workers at the front of the house like her were bringing cold towels to their colleagues at 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 made it a good time for them to try to form a union at the original Via 313 stores. Savory is backed by private equity firm Mercato Partners, and Glover said she fears working conditions could already become an afterthought in a brand expansion.

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

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