Austin restaurant workers plan to unionize local pizza shops in new organizing efforts

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Workers at a trio of respected Austin, Texas pizza parlors Thursday did something rarely seen at local standalone restaurants: they informed their managers that they intend to form a union.

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

Some restaurant workers are unionized in the US, but they often work in restaurants attached to hotels or other larger unionized buildings such as airports. And while Starbucks baristas organize stores across the country, Austin’s efforts affect a different set of hospitality workers: bartenders, waiters, hosts, chefs and dishwashers.

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

Restaurant Workers United said it has garnered a “supermajority” of support in each of the three restaurants and intends to push for higher wages, paid holidays and reliable scheduling, among other things. If the working committee called elections, the union would have to win a majority of the votes cast to prevail.

Via 313 was not immediately available for comment on the organizing efforts. Via 313 was founded in Austin in 2011 by brothers Zane and Brandon Hunt go national in the coming years. Utah-based restaurant mutual fund Savory took a stake in the company in 2020 eye on expansion beyond Texas.

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

– Ashley Glover, bartender at Via 313

The company had already been in contact with Restaurant Workers United. The group held a protest Earlier this year, they said workers felt pressured to go to work sick and urged the company to improve sick leave and safety protocols for COVID-19. However, some workers who signed a petition to management were suspended later reinstated.

Henry Epperson, a cashier at Via 313 on Austin’s East Side, said he hoped unions could improve work in an area not known for collective bargaining. He said there’s an assumption in the industry that there will always be workers willing to endure irregular wages and tough conditions – an assumption that has been tested during the pandemic, as restaurants struggled to recruit staff keep.

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

Epperson said the campaign has ambitions beyond pizzerias.

“The goal isn’t just to win at Via, but hopefully everywhere,” he said. “I’m from Austin. I’ve already started talking about this with friends I grew up with who are in the industry and they are very excited to hear about it. It plays into this larger one [labor] Movement that is picking up steam again in this country.”

The Austin organizing campaign is part of a series of recent labor campaigns that have been run independently by workers and not by mainstream unions. Such efforts come with downsides — these groups lack the human resources and resources of unions that have existed for decades — but they can neutralize a company’s “third-party” portrayal of the union. Independent unions recently won historic elections at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in New York City and at a Trader Joe’s grocery store in Massachusetts.

Many unions have lobbied for restaurant workers over the years, such as the Labor Center’s Restaurant Opportunities Center United and the Service Employees International Union-funded Fight for $15 campaign. These groups have played a crucial role in passing minimum wage legislation across the country and drawing attention to struggles by workers in the industry, including harassment.

But Restaurant Workers United is taking a different approach, attempting to unionize workers through National Labor Relations Board elections and then finalizing a union contract – a process unions have complained about for years. Ben Reynolds, an Austin Group organizer, said many service workers seem keen to try right now.

“Even where there’s a lot of fear, they’re like, ‘Okay, it’s worth it, let’s try,'” Reynolds said. “As we see at Starbucks, elections aren’t a panacea, but they can be a very useful organizational tool. If Starbucks [Workers United] hadn’t won if they hadn’t 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

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

Glover said the organizing campaign really got going earlier this summer when the air conditioning in her store wasn’t working and the kitchen got even hotter than usual. She said workers at the front of the house like herself brought cold towels to their colleagues at the back.

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

Workers said that Savory’s ambitions beyond the city made it a good time for her to try to form a union at the original Via 313 shops. Savory is backed by private equity firm Mercato Partners, and Glover said she fears working conditions will already become an afterthought as the brand expands.

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

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