Workers at a trio of big-name pizzerias in Austin, Texas, did something Thursday rarely seen in local independent restaurants: They informed their managers that they intended to form a union.
Workers at Via 313, an Austin-born restaurant group serving Detroit-style pizza, have been organizing with restaurant workers united, an independent labor group formed during the pandemic. The union says it filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday seeking to hold elections at the restaurant group’s three meeting places in the city.
Some restaurant workers are unionized in the US, but they often work in restaurants attached to hotels or other larger union properties, such as airports. And while the Starbucks baristas are organization of stores throughout the countryAustin’s effort involves a different crop of food service workers: bartenders, servers, hostesses, cooks and dishwashers.
“I know how weird this is. I know what a risk it is. It could definitely get blacklisted,” said Ashley Glover, a bartender at the store on Via 313 in the city’s Oak Hill neighborhood who has worked in the industry for six years. “But I think it’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of.”
Restaurant Workers United said it had mustered a “supermajority” of support at each of the three restaurants, and that it intends to push for higher wages, paid leave and reliable programming, among other priorities. If the labor board schedules elections, the union would need to get a majority of the votes cast to prevail.
Via 313 could not be immediately reached for comment on the organizing effort. Founded in Austin by brothers Zane and Brandon Hunt in 2011, Via 313 may be goes national in the next years. Utah-based restaurant investment fund Savory acquired a stake in the company in 2020 with a eye to expansion beyond Texas.
“I know how weird this is. I know what a risk it is. … But I think it’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of.”
– Ashley Glover, Waitress at Via 313
The company has already had run-ins with Restaurant Workers United. The group held a protest Earlier this year, he said 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, a cashier at Via 313 on Austin’s East Side, said he hopes unions can improve work in a field not known for collective bargaining. He said there has been an assumption in the industry that there will always be workers willing to put up with erratic pay and harsh conditions, an assumption that was tested during the pandemic as restaurants struggled to retain staff.
“For years they thought they could chew people up and spit them out and take on a new set of people,” Epperson, who studies history and sociology at the University of Texas, said of the industry. “But it takes a lot of skill to be able to do this job and get this job done. We really want to have respect and dignity for people who work in restaurants.”
Epperson said the campaign has ambitions beyond pizza places.
“The goal is not just to win at Via, but to win 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’re very excited to hear about it. He’s playing in this bigger [labor] movement that is starting to take off again in this country.
Austin’s organizing campaign is part of a series of recent labor campaigns run independently by workers, rather than by 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 City and at a Trader Joe’s grocery store in Massachusetts.
Many labor groups have defended restaurant workers over the years, such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and the Fight for $15 campaign funded by Service Employees International Union. Those groups have played a crucial role in passing minimum wage legislation across the country and drawing attention to worker struggles in the industry, including harassment.
But Restaurant Workers United is going a different way by trying to unionize workers through elections organized by the National Labor Relations Board and then secure a union contract, a process that for years unions have complained is broken. Ben Reynolds, an organizer with the Austin group, said many service workers seem eager to give it a try right now.
“Even when there’s great fear, they think, ‘Okay, it’s worth it, let’s try it,'” Reynolds said. “As we see with Starbucks, elections are not a panacea, but they can be a very useful organizing tool. yes 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 highly fragmented, made up of hundreds of thousands of individual and independent restaurants, as well as major franchises. But trying to unionize a group of restaurants would be one way to establish a presence in a place like Austin.
Glover said the organizing campaign really took off earlier this summer when the air conditioning unit wasn’t working in his store, making the kitchen even hotter than normal. She said that the workers in the front of the house as she were bringing cold towels to the co-workers of hers in the back.
“Salty doesn’t care. They don’t see you,” Glover said. “They see you as a number, man. Something else in the system.”
Workers said Savory’s ambitions beyond the city make it a good time to try to form a union at the original Via 313 stores. backed by private equity firm Mercato Partnersand Glover said he fears working conditions are already becoming an afterthought in a brand expansion.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re going to open another 700 stores. If the ones in Austin, the roots, aren’t good, then it’s going to be another shit pizzeria,” she said. “If they really care about money, they would take care of us.”