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.
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 a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.