Austin employees of Detroit-style pizza restaurant Via 313 are filing for a union election. Seventy-five percent of the staffers of the chain’s three physical Austin locations — East Sixth, Oak Hill, and North Campus — filed for a union election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Thursday, August 4. These union efforts were organized through the labor group Restaurant Workers United.
The Via 313 restaurant group has grown quite a bit since co-founders Brandon and Zane Hunt opened the original food truck in 2011. The brothers eventually expanded with two trucks and three physical restaurants in the Austin area. Then in 2020, Via 313 partnered with restaurant-focused investment company Savory, which led to the brand’s rapid expansion in Utah, as well as Texas restaurants in Cedar Park and Round Rock.
Via 313 staffers had been organizing for the past year and a half. In January 2022, a group of employees from its physical restaurant locations alleged that there were issues with COVID-19 transparency and safety concerns over the 2021 holiday season during the omicron variant surge. In response, 46 employees from various Austin locations created a petition asking for sick and hazard pay and better COVID safety measures such as pausing indoor dining during variant surges and only letting staffers who contract COVID return to work after a negative test result and 24 hours without a fever.
On January 5, some of those staffers physically hand-delivered the petition to Savory director and vice president of operations Michelle Dahse at the Oak Hill restaurant in person, and later that evening, they emailed the petition to high-ranking members of the company using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. After that, the company’s human resources department sent out a company-wide email detailing its COVID-19 measures, from making cleaning supplies available to telling staffers if they’ve been around an employee who has tested positive within 48 hours of their symptoms. Eater has reviewed a copy of this email.
The next morning on January 6, the Via 313 petitioners received a cease-and-desist letter from Savory’s general counsel Steve Black at the group’s email address of email@example.com. In the letter, Black claimed that the petitioners’ email address used “intellectual property rights” because it referenced the restaurant group. The email continued: ”You are not part of management and do not have the right to speak on behalf of the company or to use the company’s intellectual property to promote your own personal agenda.” (Eater reviewed a screenshot of the cease-and-desist letter; the group’s email account was shut down shortly after receiving the letter.)
Later on January 6, Via 313 suspended four employees who had approached Dahse for “creating a hostile work situation and threatening their coworker in front of other employees and guests,” according to a statement released by Zane Hunt in January. In response to the suspensions, staffers protested outside of the Guadalupe restaurant on January 8. On Monday, January 10, Savory offered to reinstate three of the four suspended workers with back pay (the fourth had already quit).
In that same statement, Zane Hunt shared that the union’s demands for more transparency around positive COVID-19 cases among staff violated HIPAA Law. “Threatening a fellow employee to share these names publicly is unlawful. This was one of the most serious demands made to us for transparency,” Hunt wrote. “Following federal and state laws will remain the policy of Via 313 to further protect our employees.”
Now that the Via 313’s union organizers have filed for an election through Restaurant Workers United, the next step is for employees of the three physical locations to cast votes. If union supporters win the election, Savory and Via 313 will have to choose to recognize the union, and then the two groups will meet to bargain out a contract.
Since January, there have been no employee policy changes, according to Elyanna Calle, a member representing the Via 313 organizers, despite the fact that the company has grown in size. “No policy changes that bring everyone to a living wage in Austin, and no policy changes in sick pay and many of the things we want to see,” she says — the type of measures that the union plans on bargaining for if organizers succeed in the election.
Eater reached out for comment to both Savory and Via 313 management and did not receive a response at press time.
While employees of Via 313’s two trailers — West Sixth and Rainey Street — are not included in this specific union effort, Calle says that if they want to join, they’re more than welcome to.
The Via 313 union organizers plan on hosting a celebration rally in honor of filing at the Guadalupe location at noon on Sunday, August 7.
Other Austin food-and-beverage companies have been unionizing recently as well. There are the South Lamar location of movie-theater-restaurant chain Alamo Drafthouse, Austin locations of Starbucks, and Austin-based cookie delivery service Tiff’s Treats.
Update, August 8, 10:16 a.m.: This article, originally published on August 5, 11:21 a.m., has been updated to include a link to the Via 313 union’s NLRB’s filing.