On April 19, the workers at Glo’s Cafe, a beloved Capitol Hill breakfast spot, became, according to their announcement, “the first full-service restaurant in Seattle to successfully unionize in decades.”
They might be the first ever to unionize in Seattle, but the workers weren’t 100 percent sure, joked Sean Case, who works back of house (BOH) at Glo’s. Thus, “in decades.” Either way, organizing a small, independent restaurant is a remarkable achievement, as that sector of the food service industry has historically been considered difficult to organize.
“I think the full-service barrier is the biggest one in terms of organizing,” said Ben Reynolds, a volunteer organizer with Restaurant Workers United (RWU), the fledgling union that helped the Glo’s workers organize. Workers at Starbucks and the local sandwich chain Homegrown recently unionized, something Case said inspired their own efforts, but relatively few full-service restaurants have ridden the recent restaurant union wave. RWU has organized two other places, Via 313 in Austin, Texas, and Pizza Lupo in Louisville, Kentucky.
There are a lot of reasons why it’s so hard to organize independent restaurants, like the fact that they are small shops with low headcounts, but Reynolds said that unions that have overlooked the full-service restaurant industry are missing a few key points.
“I’m not going to say that it’s easy to organize in restaurants. I wouldn’t say that. Obviously union density is one of the lowest in any industry, but I think some of the challenges are a little bit overstated and especially with independent restaurants,” he said. The fact that shops are so small can actually be used to the advantage of workers, he argued, as, unlike with big chains, “You can organize 100 percent of what they own if you get together with your coworkers.”
He also noted that, especially in left-leaning cities like Seattle, patrons are frequently very union friendly. If a restaurant on Capitol Hill or in Ballard did fight unionization, they’d be hard pressed to get anyone to cross a picket line for dinner.
There’s also the fact that workers in the restaurant industry are ready for better working conditions. RWU formed during the early days of the pandemic, when economic conditions were bad for restaurant workers, many of whom were missing out on a lot of tip income while collecting unemployment. As restaurants reopened for dine-in, things only got worse. Massive worker shortages led to an epidemic of stress and overwork in the industry.
Pandemic-related problems were what provided the impetus for RWU to form but were by no means the only issues plaguing the industry, Reynolds said.
Pay is low, and while some servers and bartenders make a killing with tips, their colleagues in the dish pit are not doing well. An ROC United study from 2022 found a gap of more than $1 per hour in average wages between FOH and BOH workers in California. Wage disparities are even worse broken out by race and gender. In the study, a white male FOH worker made $15.06 per hour, to the $9.92 per hour of a female BOH worker of color.
Restaurant work is also unstable, with schedules changing at a moment’s notice. Workers are pressured to come in on call when someone calls in sick. Speaking of calling in sick, it’s culturally discouraged, with management often threatening to fire or cut the hours of people who do it “too often.” The prevailing tough-guy attitude in restaurants also leads workers to accept low pay, overwork and verbal abuse all too often. Wage theft — the most common and highest-dollar-value property crime in this country — is rampant in the restaurant industry.
Historically, restaurant workers have had just one option for dealing with mistreatment: quitting.
“That’s the service industry wheel, right? Which is, like, you work somewhere until you get so fucking fed up that you quit. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, well, I got to find another job.’ And then you end up at the same kind of place again,” Reynolds said. The goal of his group’s efforts is to win material improvements for workers and to create change.
“There’s really no way to break that cycle unless we actually organize to change it. That’s the vision and the dream. And obviously this is a small start, but some of these first steps are the hardest ones,” he said.
“The idea is … to fill that gap right now in the labor movement and both to provide a home for anybody who wants to organize and also just to show the wider labor movement this is possible. We are winning, and we’re going to win contracts that are worth the paper that they’re written on,” he said.
Glo’s workers were similarly excited about the symbolism of their union but also had some specific material concerns in mind, especially secure scheduling. Seattle’s secure scheduling ordinance included a carve-out for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, meaning it does not apply to most independent, full-service restaurants.
“One of the biggest ones is consistent scheduling and being able to know a few weeks out in advance when you’re working and just being able to plan your life out a little bit better. That was, I think, the first one that we really brought up — getting it posted,” said Liv Kennemer, a front-of-house (FOH) employee at Glo’s.
Tips are also something they hope to sort out via their contract, as ensuring that the restaurant has pay equity is important to the entire group. While BOH employees traditionally have more to gain from more equitable tip-sharing agreements, Kennemer said it just as important to her and her fellow FOH employees to close the divide.
“It’s really fucking uncomfortable… When we were talking about starting to talk about tip stuff and then we’re starting to just say what our wages were after tips, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ It was a real big wake-up call because I understood that there was a discrepancy, but I didn’t understand that it was that big,” she said.
The workers would like to see Glo’s go fully non-tipping, Case said, and just pay all staff a straightforward living wage, but they know that’s a long-term goal.
“That’s going to take time,” he said. “One of the hard parts is that this is a small business and there are very real financial constraints on it… and we’re very aware of that. We’re not taking on Jeff Bezos here.”
The owners of Glo’s are, he added, are about as far from being evil billionaires as you can get.
“I do want to say our bosses, Julie and Steve, they’re nice people. We really like them a lot. And it’s the kind of small business that politicians want you to think they mean when they say ‘small business.’ It’s like they work on the line with you, right? They’re in there working alongside you,” he said.
Management at Glo’s, both Reynolds and the workers emphasized, voluntarily recognized the union.
“I think the owners here made a very forward-thinking and brave choice, but I think they made the right one,” Reynolds said. “You can spend quite literally over a million or even millions of dollars fighting us and still lose. Or you can voluntarily recognize the union, negotiate a reasonable contract with your workers and also receive the praise and support of the community for doing that.”
That they did.
“I went and got coffee [with some coworkers] earlier, and we were talking about the explosive support on Twitter. It seems like across the Internet, people are really excited to come eat at a union shop and to come support the first indie union in several decades,” said Drew Combs, another BOH employee at Glo’s. Despite Glo’s Cafe’s pop-up, which opened in a nearby bar after a fire destroyed the original Glo’s space, being closed for over a month, regulars have been coming out of the woodwork to express their support for the union, Combs added.
Management did not respond to a request for comment as of press time but included the following statement in the workers’ unionization announcement: “We hope our success partnering with this new union blazes the path for other small business owners and their workers to unite in creating more cohesive partnerships. This will in turn strengthen the small business sector by improving communication and fostering a healthier relationship with a dedicated and secure workforce.”
Indeed, Glo’s workers said that their decision to unionize was by no means based on any misbehavior from management. Rather, the union formed over a meeting about tips. In anticipation of the restaurant’s grand reopening in a newer, larger space next to the Capitol Hill light rail station, management asked the workers to get together and decide how they wanted to handle tips.
When they did, Case, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and is involved in other organizing projects, brought up the idea of a union. It met a pretty warm reception, he said.
“I think part of it is just having a bunch of lefty people working there,” he joked.
However, the workers hope their union will inspire people in all types of full-service restaurants to organize. RWU is small, Reynolds said, but eager to expand. They’re all-volunteer for the moment — Reynolds’ day job is with UFCW 3000 — but are looking for donations and hoping to hire paid organizers soon. Leads, he noted, are one thing they’re not lacking. And for those leads, Case had one piece of advice.
“Do it,” he said.
The Glo’s Cafe workers will be holding a celebratory rally at Cal Anderson Park on Sunday, May 7 at noon.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the May 3-9, 2023 issue.