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Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

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BOISE, IDA¬≠HO‚ÄĒIt was rain¬≠ing light¬≠ly June¬†29¬†when Geo Eng¬≠ber¬≠son, own¬≠er of the Pie Hole pizze¬≠ria, con¬≠vened an emer¬≠gency staff meet¬≠ing. He had intend¬≠ed a¬†quick con¬≠fer¬≠ence in the park¬≠ing lot behind the restau¬≠rant, known for its steady stream of week¬≠end bar-goers. Giv¬≠en the weath¬≠er, Eng¬≠ber¬≠son fer¬≠ried the hand¬≠ful of work¬≠ers into his¬†trailer.¬†

Ear¬≠li¬≠er that month, work¬≠ers at the piz¬≠za joint peti¬≠tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor¬≠ried that Pie Hole was pre¬≠pared to replace them, for¬≠mer employ¬≠ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork¬≠ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig¬≠gered a conflict. 

In a¬†record¬≠ing of the trail¬≠er meet¬≠ing obtained by¬†In These Times, Eng¬≠ber¬≠son says,¬†‚ÄúKiwi, yes¬≠ter¬≠day you told [the man¬≠ag¬≠er] you wouldn‚Äôt train new hires, any scabs. That still how you¬†feel?‚Ä̬†

When Palmer and fel¬≠low work¬≠er Mar¬≠shall Har¬≠ris reaf¬≠firmed they would not train new hires, Eng¬≠ber¬≠son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work¬≠ers have¬†orga¬≠nized a¬†series of pick¬≠ets¬†in front of the restau¬≠rant. Call¬≠ing them¬≠selves the Pie Hole Work¬≠ers Union, they filed a¬†com¬≠plaint with the Nation¬≠al Labor Rela¬≠tions Board alleg¬≠ing the fir¬≠ing was retal¬≠ia¬≠to¬≠ry and vio¬≠lat¬≠ed their right to par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pate in¬†‚Äúcon¬≠cert¬≠ed activ¬≠i¬≠ty‚ÄĚ with¬≠out¬†reprisal.¬†

Eng¬≠ber¬≠son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har¬≠ris were fired for orga¬≠niz¬≠ing and that the busi¬≠ness planned to replace them.¬†‚ÄúWe got busy, and we need¬≠ed to hire more peo¬≠ple,‚ÄĚ Eng¬≠ber¬≠son tells¬†In These Times. He adds,¬†‚ÄúI treat my employ¬≠ees like fam¬≠i¬≠ly ‚Ķ and I¬†don‚Äôt ever hear from them that they‚Äôre dis¬≠grun¬≠tled about their wages.‚ÄĚ Eng¬≠ber¬≠son also says that, when he used the word¬†‚Äúscabs,‚ÄĚ he was quot¬≠ing Palmer‚ÄĒ not con¬≠firm¬≠ing the new work¬≠ers were, in fact,¬†scabs.¬†

The Pie Hole work¬≠ers have found sup¬≠port from the Boise chap¬≠ter of the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Social¬≠ists of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca (DSA), which has aid¬≠ed in pick¬≠ets and con¬≠nect¬≠ed them with DSA‚Äôs nation¬≠al Restau¬≠rant Orga¬≠niz¬≠ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul¬≠ti¬≠ple left-wing labor groups have tak¬≠en on the cause of restau¬≠rant orga¬≠niz¬≠ing. In addi¬≠tion to its¬†Restau¬≠rant Orga¬≠niz¬≠ing Project, DSA has col¬≠lab¬≠o¬≠rat¬≠ed with the Unit¬≠ed Elec¬≠tri¬≠cal, Radio and Machine Work¬≠ers of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca (UE)‚ÄĒa demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic, rank-and-file union‚ÄĒto advise work¬≠ers on union dri¬≠ves and work¬≠place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE‚Äôs orga¬≠niz¬≠ing, the Left has tak¬≠en a¬†cen¬≠tral role in pan¬≠dem¬≠ic-era¬†organizing.

‚ÄúWe‚Äôve seen a¬†sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant uptick in work¬≠ers con¬≠tact¬≠ing us about orga¬≠niz¬≠ing from the restau¬≠rant indus¬≠try, and in the food ser¬≠vice [and] hos¬≠pi¬≠tal¬≠i¬≠ty sec¬≠tor more broad¬≠ly,‚ÄĚ UE orga¬≠niz¬≠er Mark Mein¬≠ster says.¬†‚ÄúWork¬≠ers are very con¬≠cerned about the lack of safe¬≠ty pro¬≠tec¬≠tions regard¬≠ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic¬≠i¬≠pate as a¬†result of serv¬≠ing few¬≠er¬†customers.‚ÄĚ

This wave of labor activism in hos¬≠pi¬≠tal¬≠i¬≠ty has already ush¬≠ered in wins. In March, a coali¬≠tion of New Orleans ser¬≠vice and hos¬≠pi¬≠tal¬≠i¬≠ty work¬≠ers cam¬≠paigned to dis¬≠burse reserves from the city‚Äôs con¬≠ven¬≠tion cen¬≠ter direct¬≠ly into the hands of work¬≠ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro¬≠vide $1 mil¬≠lion in grants to work¬≠ers affect¬≠ed by the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic. Some restau¬≠rants in Philadel¬≠phia, where hos¬≠pi¬≠tal¬≠i¬≠ty work¬≠ers have orga¬≠nized to end the sub¬≠min¬≠i¬≠mum wage for servers and bar¬≠tenders, have increased wages dur¬≠ing the pandemic.

But the restau¬≠rant indus¬≠try remains dif¬≠fi¬≠cult to orga¬≠nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor¬≠i¬≠ty, with union den¬≠si¬≠ty in accom¬≠mo¬≠da¬≠tion and food ser¬≠vice hov¬≠er¬≠ing around 2.1%.

At Augie‚Äôs Cof¬≠fee, a chain in South¬≠ern Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠nia, work¬≠ers demon¬≠strat¬≠ed 70% sup¬≠port for the Augie‚Äôs Union (rep¬≠re¬≠sent¬≠ed by UE) and request¬≠ed the com¬≠pa¬≠ny vol¬≠un¬≠tar¬≠i¬≠ly rec¬≠og¬≠nize their bar¬≠gain¬≠ing unit. The com¬≠pa¬≠ny then shut down oper¬≠a¬≠tions and laid off every¬≠one in the caf√©s. Now, for¬≠mer work¬≠ers are cam¬≠paign¬≠ing for union recog¬≠ni¬≠tion and to be rehired.

‚ÄúPeo¬≠ple are so atom¬≠ized, and the job they do is so tem¬≠po¬≠rary,‚ÄĚ says Matthew Soliz, a¬†barista orga¬≠niz¬≠ing with Augie‚Äôs Union.¬†‚ÄúI think for peo¬≠ple my age and younger, unions aren‚Äôt real¬≠ly a¬†con¬≠cept, right? Like, in talk¬≠ing to my cowork¬≠ers, the most com¬≠mon response is,¬†‚ÄėI don‚Äôt real¬≠ly know what that¬†is.‚Äô¬†‚ÄĚ

Giv¬≠en the chal¬≠lenges, restau¬≠rant work¬≠ers are band¬≠ing togeth¬≠er across restau¬≠rants and across cities. In Chica¬≠go, New Orleans, Den¬≠ver and Boise, restau¬≠rant work¬≠ers have formed city¬≠wide sol¬≠i¬≠dar¬≠i¬≠ty orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions. On July 24, work¬≠ers around the coun¬≠try marched to demand expand¬≠ed ben¬≠e¬≠fits from unem¬≠ploy¬≠ment insurance.

‚ÄúThe fact that [DSA‚Äôs Restau¬≠rant Orga¬≠niz¬≠ing Project] is grow¬≠ing is evi¬≠dence [that] A, we‚Äôre not crazy, and B, we‚Äôre not alone, and C, that there is sol¬≠i¬≠dar¬≠i¬≠ty that is grow¬≠ing rapid¬≠ly,‚ÄĚ Har¬≠ris says.¬†‚ÄúInside of five weeks, I‚Äôve gone from nev¬≠er hav¬≠ing done any of this to attempt¬≠ing to orga¬≠nize oth¬≠er¬†people.‚ÄĚ

This article originally appeared at In These Times on September 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good¬≠man Inves¬≠tiga¬≠tive Fel¬≠low, as well as a writer based in Madi¬≠son, Wis¬≠con¬≠sin, where she works at a restau¬≠rant. She con¬≠tributes reg¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠ly to Isth¬≠mus, Madison‚Äôs alt-week¬≠ly, and The Pro¬≠gres¬≠sive magazine.


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