News & Commentary

July 14, 2020

Jon Levitan

Jon Levitan is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

The twin crises of the day, the coronavirus pandemic and the continued systemic oppression of black and indigenous people of color, have energized a union drive in an unlikely place: the sparsely unionized food service industry.Workers at Tattersall Distillery, a distillery and cocktail bar in Minneapolis, are seeking to organize with UNITE HERE Local 17. Two events sparked the organizing push. First, workers received an email from management with a lackluster return-to-work plan that lacked adequate safety measures and hazard pay. Second, after workers demanded an all-staff meeting to discuss race after the Minneapolis Police murdered George Floyd, management agreed to “agreed to racial equity and diversity training, but added a new stipulation, requiring everyone to re-interview for their old jobs—the ultimate signal of expendability.” 

Tattersall workers hope that a high profile victory could launch a wave of organizing in the food service industry. Despite low pay, grueling working conditions, and highly precarious employment, the industry has historically been difficult to organize. In part our system of enterprise bargaining is to blame, because in an already high-turnover industry with razor-thin margins, employers can credibly claim unionization at the shop level could cause them to go out of business. But the workers acknowledge there is more at play. “Service sector work is typically flexible but also highly precarious, historically feminized and therefore un-unionized, unprotected labor,” they announced as they launched their organizing drive. Compounding the problem is that a significant portion of the food service workforce is undocumented, and therefore lack signficant labor law protections thanks to a hostile legal environment. The workers at Tattersall will vote in an upcoming NLRB election after management refused to voluntarily recognize the union.

Workers in many states are still failing to get unemployment benefits that they are legally entitled to, as the expanded benefits are set to expire at the end of the month. Despite filing for unemployment since April, Alexis Herdez, who was laid off from her Lexington, Ky., job at a bridal clothing store, has not yet received any payment. “The automated phone system for the state’s unemployment system takes her to a queue for a callback that has yet to come. Visits to state offices have been fruitless. While Herdez was finally able to get an appointment with someone at the unemployment agency to look at her case, it’s not until August, she said.” Herdez, like millions of other Americans, is struggling to make her monthly payments.

After Harvard and M.I.T. sued to block a Trump administration policy that would force international students to leave the country if their colleges shift to online learning in the fall, a group of four unions who represent student workers have filed an amicus brief in support of the universities. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Communications Workers of America (CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and International Union of United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), argued that the policy was neither adequately explained nor did Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency which announced it, consider all the facts and evidence before it, and therefore the policy is illegal. The brief told the story of Yan Wu, a member of UAW Local 2322 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who “would need to attend and teach her courses from China—contending not only with a 12-hour time difference, but also figuring out how to communicate across the country’s internet-censorship regime.”

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