The service industry has been one of the hardest sectors hit by the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) started the Restaurant Organizing Project (ROP) to unionize restaurant workers for better pay and conditions during the pandemic and beyond.
The push to unionize is coming at a time when businesses — including restaurants — are facing strict guidelines in the name of public safety, and as job loss spreads across the country. Unionizing makes sense, says Chris Himelblau, the Austin lead organizer with the ROP, especially in situations where management isn’t following those required COVID-19 health and safety regulations.
Since mid-March, Himelblau himself has been furloughed from his position as a host and server assistant at South Lamar restaurant Eberly, and has been relying on federal aid packages, which have now expired. “If I was still working,” he says, “I’d feel very uncomfortable working with the raging pandemic that’s going on.”
“I think right now is a better time than any time to really ask those questions, like: ‘What can I do to make the conditions for myself, my coworkers, and my community better?’” Himelblau says. One answer may be unionizing.
Himelblau is worried that the federal expansion of unemployment benefits has ended and Congress is still unable to come together on a deal. Plus there’s always the possibility of another shutdown forcing the temporary shutter of businesses again, which would lead to more furloughs and layoffs.
ROP is working on sending out educational materials to the industry members detailing their rights as workers, going through various possible steps towards unionizing: “This is how you organize your shop floor,” Himelblau explains. “This is how you prepare for a strike, if you need to.”
Himelblau acknowledges that local unionizing won’t happen quickly, “but we are setting the building blocks for it,” he says. “The goal of this entire project is to mobilize workers to give them the tools to organize themselves on their shop floors and to have an available network for them to communicate with each other from shop to shop.”
Ultimately, the goal is to turn ROP into a larger union for food and beverage and hospitality workers. (Currently, there’s the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union and the Culinary Union Local 226 in Las Vegas.) The group isn’t yet sure whether it will be a new union or if another union will step in and give them membership.
Himelblau acknowledges that many members of the service industry are scared to be known to participate in the organizing project. “There’s a lot of history of workers being fired for organizing themselves,” he said. He also stresses that ROP is not focusing solely on small businesses. “We actually sympathize with those people,” he said. “The owners are also the workers there.”
Food service workers’ efforts to unionize during the pandemic haven’t been as fruitful as desired, as businesses have used the crisis as a way to block these attempts. In Portland, Voodoo Doughnut employees unionized in March, but promised furloughs turned into layoffs in June and the company had been looking to hire non-union workers instead.
In Texas, it’s more difficult to unionize as statewide “right to work” laws — which forbid employers from requiring employees pay union membership dues — disincentivize the efforts. That results in less robust union activity, which is apparent by the fact that just four percent of Texas workers were represented by a union last year.
ROP isn’t going to step into non-organized restaurants and organize for them, though. “Workers are going to have to want to do it themselves,” Himelblau says. “We can’t do it for them.”
To help build awareness around the conditions endured by unemployed Austinites because of the lack of relief, the Austin ROP recently held two demonstrations. The first, focusing on service workers, took place outside of Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s office in July, and the second, a more general one beyond service workers, earlier this month. There’s another general rally scheduled for Tuesday, September 1 at Austin City Hall in the downtown area, which will also serve as a food distribution point for the unemployed, where people can donate or pick up food.
The lack of government aid is a key reason that Texas restaurants have remained open for dine-in service now, even though the virus is spread easily through close contact and likely airborne transmission. With little substantial government aid available, staying open for business helps pay the still-required bills and expenses, such as rent.
“They gave them loans instead of grants,” says Himelblau, referring to the confusing Paycheck Protection Program, “whereas the federal government was just chipper to give billions of dollars to airlines and banks [when it came to processing fees] and their lobbyist friends.”
Currently, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been working on an extension of pandemic-related stimulus and relief packages, but so far have yet to come to an agreement. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which passed in March, provided some temporary relief in the form of beefed up unemployment. But those benefits dried up in the beginning of August. The DSA is also calling on the Texas congressional delegation to ensure that it does not concede to the Republican efforts, which would offer a weekly benefit that is cut by half.
Though the unemployment numbers in Texas were much higher in the spring, the state still registered 51,476 unemployment claims during the week ending on August 8. About 3,945 of those were for employees in the accommodation and food service industries.
Employees interested in organizing and/or are looking for access to a professional organizer (someone who can guide recruitment, help create materials, tell them how to strike among other actions) are encouraged to reach out to ROP at ROP@austindsa.org.