Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

When workers at a pizza joint refused to train the people replacing them, they were fired. Now they’re unionizing.

Alice Herman

Augie's Coffee, a coffee chain in the Inland Empire of California, laid off 54 employees during the pandemic only a week after workers announced they would unionize, leading employees to organize in July. Members of the Augie's Union are part of a growing number of movements, like the Pie Hole Workers Union, to organize restaurant workers. Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

BOISE, IDA­HO — It was rain­ing light­ly June 29 when Geo Eng­ber­son, own­er of the Pie Hole pizze­ria, con­vened an emer­gency staff meet­ing. He had intend­ed a quick con­fer­ence in the park­ing lot behind the restau­rant, known for its steady stream of week­end bar-goers. Giv­en the weath­er, Eng­ber­son fer­ried the hand­ful of work­ers into his trailer. 

Ear­li­er that month, work­ers at the piz­za joint peti­tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor­ried that Pie Hole was pre­pared to replace them, for­mer employ­ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork­ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig­gered a conflict. 

In a record­ing of the trail­er meet­ing obtained by In These Times, Eng­ber­son says, Kiwi, yes­ter­day you told [the man­ag­er] you wouldn’t train new hires, any scabs. That still how you feel?” 

When Palmer and fel­low work­er Mar­shall Har­ris reaf­firmed they would not train new hires, Eng­ber­son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work­ers have orga­nized a series of pick­ets in front of the restau­rant. Call­ing them­selves the Pie Hole Work­ers Union, they filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board alleg­ing the fir­ing was retal­ia­to­ry and vio­lat­ed their right to par­tic­i­pate in con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” with­out reprisal. 

Eng­ber­son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har­ris were fired for orga­niz­ing and that the busi­ness planned to replace them. We got busy, and we need­ed to hire more peo­ple,” Eng­ber­son tells In These Times. He adds, I treat my employ­ees like fam­i­ly … and I don’t ever hear from them that they’re dis­grun­tled about their wages.” Eng­ber­son also says that, when he used the word scabs,” he was quot­ing Palmer— not con­firm­ing the new work­ers were, in fact, scabs. 

The Pie Hole work­ers have found sup­port from the Boise chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), which has aid­ed in pick­ets and con­nect­ed them with DSA’s nation­al Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul­ti­ple left-wing labor groups have tak­en on the cause of restau­rant orga­niz­ing. In addi­tion to its Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project, DSA has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) — a demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file union — to advise work­ers on union dri­ves and work­place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE’s orga­niz­ing, the Left has tak­en a cen­tral role in pan­dem­ic-era organizing.

We’ve seen a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in work­ers con­tact­ing us about orga­niz­ing from the restau­rant indus­try, and in the food ser­vice [and] hos­pi­tal­i­ty sec­tor more broad­ly,” UE orga­niz­er Mark Mein­ster says. Work­ers are very con­cerned about the lack of safe­ty pro­tec­tions regard­ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic­i­pate as a result of serv­ing few­er customers.”

This wave of labor activism in hos­pi­tal­i­ty has already ush­ered in wins. In March, a coali­tion of New Orleans ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers cam­paigned to dis­burse reserves from the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter direct­ly into the hands of work­ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro­vide $1 mil­lion in grants to work­ers affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Some restau­rants in Philadel­phia, where hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers have orga­nized to end the sub­min­i­mum wage for servers and bar­tenders, have increased wages dur­ing the pandemic.

But the restau­rant indus­try remains dif­fi­cult to orga­nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor­i­ty, with union den­si­ty in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vice hov­er­ing around 2.1%.

At Augie’s Cof­fee, a chain in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, work­ers demon­strat­ed 70% sup­port for the Augie’s Union (rep­re­sent­ed by UE) and request­ed the com­pa­ny vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their bar­gain­ing unit. The com­pa­ny then shut down oper­a­tions and laid off every­one in the cafés. Now, for­mer work­ers are cam­paign­ing for union recog­ni­tion and to be rehired.

Peo­ple are so atom­ized, and the job they do is so tem­po­rary,” says Matthew Soliz, a barista orga­niz­ing with Augie’s Union. I think for peo­ple my age and younger, unions aren’t real­ly a con­cept, right? Like, in talk­ing to my cowork­ers, the most com­mon response is, I don’t real­ly know what that is.’ ”

Giv­en the chal­lenges, restau­rant work­ers are band­ing togeth­er across restau­rants and across cities. In Chica­go, New Orleans, Den­ver and Boise, restau­rant work­ers have formed city­wide sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. On July 24, work­ers around the coun­try marched to demand expand­ed ben­e­fits from unem­ploy­ment insurance.

The fact that [DSA’s Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project] is grow­ing is evi­dence [that] A, we’re not crazy, and B, we’re not alone, and C, that there is sol­i­dar­i­ty that is grow­ing rapid­ly,” Har­ris says. Inside of five weeks, I’ve gone from nev­er hav­ing done any of this to attempt­ing to orga­nize oth­er people.”

Alice Her­man is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.

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