- Interview by
- Mindy Isser
Periods of high unemployment can be a difficult time to unionize. With fewer job options, workers can feel less willing to rock the boat. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also shown just how much workers need unions if they want safe working conditions and a voice on the job.
Restaurant workers, who have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, are finding creative ways to organize. Bartenders, servers, and hosts have staged mass protests for federal relief. The Democratic Socialists of America’s Restaurant Organizing Project is working with chapters to organize laid-off restaurant workers.
And in Minneapolis, workers at Tattersall Distilling, a popular distillery and cocktail room, took up a fight for safety at work earlier this summer that has since morphed into a full-fledged union campaign. “The effort,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last month, “has sent shock waves through the region’s craft beverage industry.” If successful, their union will be the first of its kind in the area.
Jacobin contributor Mindy Isser interviewed Krystle D’Alencar, a bartender and server at Tattersall Distilling, about their union drive, why racial justice has been central to the organizing effort, and what advice she would give to other restaurant workers attempting to unionize during the pandemic.
What made you want to organize? Was COVID-19 the last straw?
Management had sent us an email asking for our availability within a week, and attached to that email was their COVID-19 preparedness plan based off of the state’s guidelines. There were vague directions about how to open up the cocktail room. The workers, front of house specifically, reached out to each other because we were concerned. The COVID-19 numbers aren’t going down, and we understand that Governor [Tim] Walz said that restaurants and bars could open under certain conditions, but none of us agreed with that necessarily. And we’re the ones who work there!
So after reading the plan, we thought, wow, this is really vague, and we didn’t know how it was going to work, and we didn’t want to put our lives on the line. So we sent an email on behalf of the whole front-of-house staff, which was seventeen out of eighteen staff. Our email addressed three issues: one, divest from the [Minneapolis Police Department], so any events held at the cocktail room should not have police used for security. The second was that we requested an all-staff meeting before giving our availability to discuss logistics of the preparedness plan, since we’re the ones who run that room, and none of the people who made this plan are ever working in that room. No one asked us what we thought about the plan before they created it.
The last was to enforce racial equity, how we would give back to the community that we helped gentrify. I’m the only black employee in the entire distillery. There is no excuse that the major distillery in Minneapolis, which is also a national brand, has one black employee in the whole cocktail room. All of the people of color who work in the front of house do so because workers have pushed for their hiring.
What has the employer’s response been?
Turning to the union was our last straw. It wasn’t our initial intention.
The boss is the best organizer!
Their response to our demands was basically like, instead of an all-staff meeting, they’d do one-on-one meetings with all of us, and they wanted to re-interview us all, too. They said they were doing this in order to diversify the workplace, like we asked. But we should be able to get our jobs back, and we’re saying the entire place needs to be diversified — which means the office and HR too, not just servers. If you think you need to fire everyone to do that, that’s wrong. It becomes a divide-and-conquer thing.
We said no to that, and again said we wanted to have a group meeting. And then we found out that they’d started doing interviews for our jobs! That’s when we decided to form a union with UNITE HERE. They finally got back to us and said we could have the group meeting, so we went and brought our union organizer. We were all wearing our UNITE buttons. We told them we were forming a union, and we asked them to voluntarily recognize it. They said they needed time to think about it with their lawyer.
When we told them they couldn’t intimidate us or break any labor laws, they threatened to call the police. This is weeks after sending an email in support of the uprisings and talking about the importance of racial justice. Bosses can’t be antiracist — their job is to exploit people. Look at Amazon’s “commitment” to racial justice, when their entire corporation is based on the exploitation of workers, specifically black and brown workers, and here you have a small business carrying that torch.
Why was racial justice such a big issue for your organizing?
We want this to be a place where people feel safe to dine as black folks and where people feel safe working. It is not a healthy or secure place for us. It’s a matter of well-being for who I am and people who are less privileged than I am. People who are dark-skinned rarely get to work front of house in the restaurant industry. It’s a huge problem. The people who work back of house are more likely to be black, more likely to be people of color, more likely to be undocumented. To work front of house, you have to be white or light-skinned. And that’s because the people who own these hot spots and hip places that get recognition are white, and so the staff are white, too.
This ends up being a class issue, because black people will get passed over for jobs that go to white people, all because they’re black. You have these high-end places where servers and bartenders can make $80 to 100k per year, and they’re probably less likely to organize, because they feel lucky and grateful they have their jobs. But when you look at the fast-food industry, so many workers are black and people of color, and they’re exploited massively. And all of them, regardless of race, are working-class.
Were you following any organizing drives that encouraged you to form a union?
I come from an immigrant family and they do custodial work and so I’m familiar with unions, but I hadn’t ever been in one. I reached out to a bunch of different organizations and people for tips on how to organize, and everyone told us that there hadn’t been many restaurants or bars in Minneapolis that formed unions. There had been some whispers of distilleries organizing across the city, and then the riots and the pandemic happened. It really clarified our position at our workplace and in our world, because of the timing and the context.
Can you share what part you’re at in the organizing process?
We decided to unionize with UNITE HERE, who typically represent hotel and hospitality workers. If we win, we will be the first unionized distillery in Minnesota, and the first distillery represented by UNITE HERE in the entire country.
We reached out to an organizer at the end of June. It was a pretty quick process, I think because our employer was planning to ignore us and just hire other people for all of our jobs. Once we heard people were doing interviews, everyone wanted to act fast.
After the meeting where we asked them to recognize our union, we told them they had until the end of the week to get back to us, or we’d go public. They didn’t get back to us, but instead they posted on Instagram that staff were seeking to unionize. They wrote, “we believe that it’s crucial for all of our employees to express each of their own individual choices,” talked about flexibility and adaptability as a business — the normal stuff that businesses do when they’re anti-union.
It backfired. People lit them on fire, like, “Why aren’t you listening to your employees? Recognize the union!” Within half an hour, they shut off comments. They had a social media post that started with the word “transparency,” yet they shut off comments.
But ballots are in the mail; people have filled them out and sent them back. Twenty-five people are eligible to vote, and I believe at least 90 percent will vote yes. I am confident that we will win.
It’s a scary time for a lot of workers — about half the country is unemployed, and restaurants are especially struggling. What would you say to restaurant or hospitality workers who want more power at work, but feel like they don’t have any security or leverage right now, or are just scared?
All there is to say is to organize. Organize with the coworkers you’re close with, reach out to each other. Check in with those who are most exploited. Don’t just do it for yourself, do it for the entire collective. Building a union allows you to gain rights, that’s why bosses hate them. People don’t think they have the power, but they do. The boss can’t say no to everyone.
This moment will be used as a tool by politicians and corporations to tell you to appreciate what you have, to feel lucky you have a job. But if what you have isn’t good enough, and never has been good enough, why not fight for more?
We always value those who had the idea to open a business over the people who actually make the business run. Most people who are able to actually start a business like ours have opportunities and resources that the workers don’t have. And they treat us like they’re doing us a favor by giving us a job. But we have not been gifted jobs, they have been gifted our labor. And it’s time to pay up.