Fueled by Family Tradition, Tudor's Biscuit World Workers Seek a Rare Fast Food Union
Twenty-five employees in tiny Elkview, West Virginia have filed for a union election after just two weeks of organizing.
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In West Virginia, there is no more iconic fast food chain than Tudor’s Biscuit World, whose 70 locations in the state pump out a steady stream of homestyle cooking. A fiery band of workers at one Tudor’s location are now seeking to give the company something else that West Virginia is famous for: a union.
Despite the political successes of the “Fight For $15” movement, actual unionized fast food restaurants are rare. Burgerville workers in Portland, Oregon recently reached an agreement on a union contract after a years-long effort, and Starbucks workers in Buffalo and elsewhere have scheduled union elections at a number of stores. Now, 25 employees of a Tudor’s in tiny Elkview, West Virginia are joining them in the vanguard of fast food organizing by seeking to unionize with UFCW Local 400. Yesterday, they filed for a union election with the NLRB.
The Tudor’s union campaign has happened fast, an example of one fed-up worker sparking a move for institutional change. It started with Cynthia Nicholson, a 63-year-old retiree who took a job as a prep cook at Tudor’s almost a year ago. Over time, she came to be concerned that she and her coworkers were being mistreated by the company’s middle managers. “I hear all the screaming at each other, the way the district managers scream at the workers. I thought, ‘This is not right. This is not normal.’” Nicholson also came to believe that some of her coworkers, who were being sent to work at another Tudor’s location in a different town on some days due to staffing issues, were being exploited and not paid what they were due in overtime.
Nicholson’s father was in a union. So was her husband, who has now passed away. Three weeks ago, she placed a call to her husband’s old union, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 625 in Charleston. They referred her to the UFCW. She began talking to coworkers. Two weeks ago, she called the first meeting to discuss organizing, and half of the store’s employees came. It wasn’t long until the majority of them had signed union cards.
“I asked them, ‘Do you feel like you’re being treated fairly? How are your working conditions?’” Nicholson recalls. She says that most of the store’s workers are paid around $9 an hour; one woman who has been at the store for several years has gotten only a 50-cent-per-hour raise. There is no system in place for regular raises. This all rubs Nicholson the wrong way. In fast food, she says, there are people from all walks of life: Some without education, some fresh out of prison. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t need to treat people like they’re garbage,” she says, “like they’re expendable.”
Helping the union effort is the fact that many of the Tudor’s workers have family members who are in unions. One of those is Jennifer Patton, who has worked at the store since April, and is one of the employees who has been traveling to work at another Tudor’s in Sissonville, about a 30 minute drive away. She says she is not being paid for the extra travel time that it takes to carpool to the other store, and fears that her overtime pay is not being calculated fairly. Earlier this year, she found out that a coworker she rides to the store with had tested positive for Covid — but only after she had ridden with him three days in a row while he was sick. She says that the coworker told her of his diagnosis directly, after management told him not to, and that the failure of management to notify everyone about the positive test put her and her entire family at risk.
“We take that chance every time we clock in. We know that,” she says. “But if we’re working side by side with somebody, they should have notified us.”
When Patton went to the first union meeting, the idea scared her. But she reached out to her stepfather, who has been a union member for 42 years, and was reassured. Now, she counts herself as determined to see the process through to the end, no matter what. “At this point, I can keep [going] through anything,” she says. “I’m not quitting. They’ll have to fire me. And good luck having a reason to fire me, because I go in every day and bust my ass for them.”
Another union supporter is April Redman, who has been working in fast food since her teens. Now she is 41, and has been at Tudor’s for seven months. She proudly calls herself a “small-town girl” with a strong work ethic — she opens the Tudor’s kitchen each morning at 4:00 a.m. — who just wants to serve customers without being hassled by capricious management.
Redman’s father was a union construction worker. “A union is like having the best lawyer you could ever have, right in your pocket. They support you. You’re a family,” she says. Just last week, her own family got bigger, as she became a grandmother. It has her thinking that she would love to be able to stay in this job until she retires — but she knows from experience that that is not the norm in the fast food industry. Her motivation is to change that.
“It just ain’t right. I want more,” she says. “I don’t want to feel replaceable, because I’m not replaceable.”
Tudor’s Biscuit World did not reply to a request for comment for this story.
Alan Hanson, a UFCW 400 representative who is helping the Tudor’s workers organize, says that they have already gathered union cards from 80% of the staff. Last Thursday, a group of workers from the Elkview store traveled to Sissonville to formally inform the district manager that they planned to unionize. It was by all accounts a contentious scene, which ended in the angry district manager calling the police on the employees. (The police let everyone go.) Yet the employees say the experience left them more energized than ever.
Nicholson says that she has already heard from Tudor’s employees at several other stores who have reached out to ask her about the unionization process. “I will continue to beat the streets,” she vows. Hanson points out that while fast food outlets have a reputation for being hard to unionize, Tudor’s, which has fewer than 20 corporate-owned stores in West Virginia, could prove to be an attractive regional target for organizing. “It’s a winnable chain,” he says. “There’s a leveraged pathway here that doesn’t exist at McDonald’s or Burger King.”
The Tudor’s campaign bears some resemblance to the recent effort to unionize a Dollar General store in Barkhamsted, Connecticut. In both cases, a single worker angry at mistreatment reached out to the local UFCW, and led a fast union drive with a small number of employees. At Dollar General, an army of corporate anti-union consultants descended on the store, and the vote went narrowly against the union. At Tudor’s, the company has not yet begun an anti-union campaign, but all of the workers say that they expect one — and that they will not allow it to shake their determination to unionize.
“We make that company some money,” says Jennifer Patton. “Without us standing in there every day, they wouldn’t make a dime.”
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.