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FOOD FIGHT: THE HOPES, DREAMS, AND CHALLENGES OF LOCAL FOOD UNIONISM

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Illustrations by Scott Murry

In the past few years the stirrings of a new unionism have been quietly seeping through the Tea Party-drenched cracks of America’s post-recession hangover.

Yet the most significant signs of this resurgence haven’t been among so-called “skilled labor” of the traditional union variety; assembly line workers for Boeing in Seattle and Volkswagen in Tennessee have fought and lost their most recent battles, with the former failing to retain the benefits they’d already won. This time, the groups leading the charge are those once considered to be on the private sector’s margins: adjunct professors, Walmart greeters, and food service workers.

Food workers in particular have been grabbing national headlines over their efforts to protest abysmally low wages, with retaliation against their organizing punctuated by nationwide walkouts last August and December, and an international walkout on May 15. As McDonald’s noted in its corporate SEC filing this February, profits throughout the industry could be threatened by these “campaigns by labor organizations and activists, including through the use of social media … to promote or threaten boycotts, strikes, or other actions.”

In the face of all this pushback, over the past year several campaigns in and around Boston have shown that unions can effectively put managers in the food service sector on their back heels. Similar in tenor and intent to 2012’s protests against the Indian restaurant group One World Cuisine, these developments reflect a discontent embedded in restaurants throughout the Boston area over low wages, wage theft, and all-around negative work environments.

Given the right mixture of worker anger and collective will, pretty soon the person making your McFlurry could be spending smoke breaks remixing the notion of what it means to work in a restaurant. If resentment among Boston’s fry cook class continues to heat up like it has in New York and Seattle, the issue may come to the forefront of Massachusetts politics in ways once thought to be impossible.

IWW BLEND

COOKIES AND WOBBLIES

A cookie shop whose gimmick is to make deliveries until three in the morning would seem to be an unusual candidate for ongoing labor unrest. Then again, the Industrial Workers of the World is an unusual union.

The IWW (also known as “The Wobblies”) had its heyday in the early 20th century, when membership in a radical leftist labor union was as controversial as … well, being in a radical leftist union today. Through a century of Red Scare propaganda and union busting, the Wobblies fell from 100,000 members to just a couple thousand, with most chapters focusing more on theoretical debates than organizing work.

Until recently. In the last decade, various chapters of the American IWW have made real attempts to engage in “bread and butter” unionism. In 2010 the Minneapolis branch of the Wobblies began a serious effort to rally workers at the sandwich shop chain Jimmy John’s, ending in a razor-thin National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote against forming an official union.

Before that, the New York City IWW branch took a bold step by trying to unionize a Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan in the spring of 2004, only to be silenced by the anti-union counter-efforts of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and the powerful Washington D.C. law firm Akin Gump. Despite winning some concessions over pay, IWW efforts were hobbled after the NLRB decided that the organizing baristas had to include workers from every Starbucks in Manhattan in their certification election, a Sisyphean task for a union of the IWW’s size.

Despite these setbacks, the Boston chapter of the Wobblies has yet to back down from their latest opponent: Insomnia Cookies, a Pennsylvania-born upstart chain of cookie shops with more than 40 stores including locations at Harvard and Boston University.

It all traces back to last August, when four fed-up workers at the Harvard Square Insomnia engaged in a “wildcat strike” by spontaneously shutting down their store for the night and wallpapering it with pro-labor fliers. The four were immediately terminated, but in the process received an outpouring of support from the Boston Wobblies, who assisted them in successfully reporting labor violations to the NLRB. Insomnia Cookies did not respond to Dig requests for comment.

Since the August wildcat strike, the IWW has engaged in small-scale guerrilla combat with Insomnia, irregularly picketing their Harvard and BU stores and attempting to spread the word about the company’s labor practices. Rallies denouncing Insomnia have been fairly tame, other than an incident last November in which a Wobbly was tackled by several Cambridge police officers.

The group did get a chance to flex its muscles in March after a delivery person and fellow Wobbly named Tasia Edmonds was suspended for a month over a bogus charge of “insubordination”—an effective death sentence in the food service industry. The IWW responded with a string of protests and a full-scale social media blitz calling for Edmonds’ reinstatement and the company quickly caved, hiring her back after two weeks.

At a recent IWW meeting, current and former staff laid out the problems that Insomnia has fixed as a result of the campaign: Workers are no longer being asked to clean up after clocking out (a common form of wage theft in the industry), delivery people are now being compensated for damages to their bikes, and workers are getting more of their legally required breaks.

Still, Edmonds knows that there are deeper issues holding back the creation of a union at Insomnia, namely the fears among workers of reprisal by the company and a high turnover rate.

“To a lot of people it’s just a stupid cookie job,” she says. “So union would be ideal, but at minimum we want to improve conditions at the shop and teach people it’s okay to be critical of their job.”

DINING HALL PRIDE

Such pragmatism from a radical might be disheartening to some, but it reflects a reality that food service workers and seasoned labor activists understand well. The movement to bring unions into our nation’s greasiest kitchens is still fairly new and faces powerful opposition from restaurants big and small, not to mention well-funded business groups like the National Restaurant Association and the Chamber of Commerce.

Still, roadblocks haven’t stymied the hopes of other local unions. The SEIU-backed labor group MassUniting has helped sound the alarm about injustices suffered by fast food workers, and took the lead in organizing Boston’s one-day walkouts at Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and KFC last August and December. The group also helped organize fast food protests in Boston last Thursday in support of the right to form a union and for a $15-an-hour living wage.

According to Reggie Zimmerman, MassUniting’s communications director, these moves have been part of a union-backed but worker-centric strategy to channel palpable unrest within the industry.

“The workers are really taking a lead on what their options are, in terms of pursuing any kind of restitution,” he says. “In Michigan, New York, and Cali[fornia] workers have filed lawsuits against McDonald’s and were able to get reimbursed.”

In Boston, MassUniting secured legal representation for a Burger King employee named Kyle King to defend himself from retaliation over workplace organizing. Nevertheless, the group still hasn’t beaten back the perception that workplace organizing will lead to a swift kick out the door. “The workers I’ve dealt with are incredibly brave individuals,” Zimmerman says. “But there’s always a concern that management is going to retaliate.”

Meanwhile, as groups like the IWW and MassUniting inch the ball forward towards unionization (or union-like benefits and protections) in the world of fast food, a local union has found success in a less obvious arena: college cafeterias. On April 22, a dozen dining hall workers—flanked by over 60 students and representatives from the service sector union UNITE HERE Local 26—marched into the office of the general manager of dining services at Emerson College to demand a fair process for unionizing.

According to “Little” Donna Papastavrou, who works in the bakery at Emerson, she and dozens of workers—along with the campus activist group Emerson PRIDE—had been covertly organizing the campaign since late last November.

“We want leadership, but none of the management there is giving us that,” Papastavrou says. “We’re tired of just being treated like a number.”

Over the past few years, UNITE HERE Local 26 has waged a steady-but-quiet campaign to unionize cafeteria workers on Boston-area campuses. After successfully organizing Northeastern University’s 400 dining hall workers in early 2012, the union has led winning drives at seven other colleges including Harvard Law School, Simmons, and MassArt. UNITE HERE’s campaign at Emerson is now poised for similar success, with an estimated 75 percent of the school’s 96 dining service workers already on board after just six months of organizing.

The company that provides the college’s dining services, a French corporation named Sodexo, has recently experienced pushback from its employees on multiple fronts. Workers at Curry College in Milton, Earlham College in Indiana, and Texas Christian University have all gone public with their union plans this year, making Emerson just the tip of a worrisome iceberg for Sodexo’s American portfolio (which helped to earn the company almost $1 billion in profits last year).

It’s hard to pin down why cafeteria workers have succeeded where workers at Burger King and Insomnia haven’t. The relative isolation of each university may be a factor, compared to the sprawling corporate machine that organizers face when going up against McDonald’s. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the average college has a well-known allergy to controversy—cynical as it may sound, most administrations would rather quietly nudge their third-party food contractors to accept worker demands than invite a media shitstorm onto campus.

Yet the biggest source of power behind university union drives may lie in the customers themselves. The students and faculty, that is. Time and time again, UNITE HERE has successfully garnered in-house support for its college campaigns, and the communal atmosphere and distinct identity of each campus seems to be the key.

Suzi Pietroluongo, an Emerson senior and founding member of Emerson PRIDE, says such relationships were instrumental in other recent victories on campus—most significantly, getting school security workers back pay after their wages were suddenly cut from $15 an hour to $10.50 an hour in 2012.

“These are the people who have taken care of me for four years,” she says, “and knowing that they’re not OK makes me want to help them.”

MO’ MONEY, SAME PROBLEMS

A partial fix to workers’ woes may be on the way. Legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour cleared the state House of Representatives in April—despite opposition from local Republicans, centrist Democrats, and local business groups—following the passage of similar legislation in the Senate last November, and now awaits a conference committee hearing. At the same time, a ballot initiative backed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and state Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton has cleared the initial regulatory hurdles and is poised to go before voters this November.

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Sen. Pacheco, the original author of the state Senate legislation, isn’t certain that the legislature is up to the task, but is glad to have the ballot measure ready in case the political theater on Beacon Hill ultimately tanks the bill.

“If we don’t get a legislative agreement,” he says, “the voters will pass it.”

Among the public, there seems to be sufficiently strong backing for such a measure. The most recent poll on the subject was taken in September 2013 and showed that 61 percent of those surveyed support raising the minimum wage. Since then, many community organizations, religious groups, and local politicians have stepped up to urge the legislature to take action.

But the issues being raised through this rising tide of worker discontent won’t end with an extra $100 in weekly take-home pay. To start, $10.50 is still far from the $15 an hour that unions and groups like Fight for Fifteen are currently crusading for. Sodexo’s Emerson employees already earn an average of $10.50 an hour, which Donna Papastavrou says is far from adequate for many of her coworkers.

“It’s not a living wage in this city, in most cities,” Papastavrou says.

Benefits, or a lack thereof, also remain a major concern for fast food workers, with the UC-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education estimating that as many as 87 percent of front-line fast food workers nationwide don’t receive health benefits through their employer. Combined with low wages and unsteady hours, many workers are driven into programs that cost taxpayers billions every year.

An Insomnia employee and IWW member who asked not to be named cited this as one of his biggest sources of frustration. “Your company T-shirt and hat are pretty much the only ‘benefits’ you get,” he says.

These grievances may seem banal to some. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant in the past 20 years knows that employees are often seen by the owners and management as expendable, replaceable scum of the service sector, and generally treated as such. Many labor activists see this as a starting point, however, rather than a cause for despair.

They hope the sad common knowledge of the industry’s conditions will lead to a push in union membership not seen since the early 20th century, both in hotbeds like New York and traditionally quieter cities like ours. To them, Boston has all of the ingredients necessary to join the ranks of this rising food unionism movement; the only question remaining is whether the people who need it most—and their customers—are ready to demand it.

“Even though we’re working within one company, we know that this is about a lot more than us,” the anonymous Insomnia employee says. “We’d like to raise everyone up, if we could.”

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