Is Tattersall workers’ push for a union the start of a trend at Twin Cities bars, restaurants?

By: - July 13, 2020 6:15 am

Workers at Tattersall Distillery voted to unionize last year. Photo courtesy of Jonia Whitney.

For Tattersall Distillery workers, it began with a baffling memo from management on reopening during the pandemic. 

“We got a letter saying ‘Hey we need your availability. Here is the plan,” said Krystle D’Alencar, a worker at Tattersall, the upscale cocktail bar and distillery in Northeast Minneapolis.

“Every one of us looked at that plan and said: ‘What the (expletivie) is this?’” she said at a recent rally. 

Workers thought the reopen plan did not properly focus on safety and did not reward them with fair hazard pay, and a unionization drive blossomed quickly. Now public pressure has forced the owners of Tattersall Distilling to reverse course. After originally opposing the workers’ drive to unionize, they said earlier this week they welcome whatever decision their workers make about forming a union. 

“Whether or not to form a union is your choice, not ours,” said Dan Oskey and Jon Kriedler in a statement to workers and shared with the Reformer, though they declined to immediately recognize the union. “We are concerned that voluntarily recognizing the union would shut out some employees’ voices. We think it is important that everyone has a vote, and will embrace your decision.”

Workers at the distillery and bar will decide whether to join UNITE HERE Local 17 — a hospitality union that represents over 6,000 workers in the Twin Cities metro — in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. 

Tattersall workers unionizing could be momentous for the region’s restaurant and bar workers, who are facing unprecedented instability due to the pandemic. 

Unions in trouble, but COVID-19 could be spurring organizing drives

Private sector union membership continues to collapse in the United States, with a bit more than 6% of workers now in a union — compared to nearly one-third of all workers in the 1950s. And the situation is particularly grim for unions representing restaurant workers.  

A 2014 study by the Economic Policy Institute showed that only 1.8% of workers in the restaurant industry are unionized, among the lowest rate of any sector in the economy. The same study showed that restaurant workers who are unionized make almost 25% more per hour than restaurant workers who aren’t.

Restaurants are not conducive to unionization, however: Unions are often unwilling to invest resources to organize smaller independent restaurants and bars like Tattersall. Smaller bars and restaurants are constantly opening and going out of business, and the industry is infamous for employee turnover, as well. 

“U.S labor law, which has become more anti-worker than ever, combined with the industry structure which makes it really hard to unionize restaurants and bars on a shop by shop basis, makes labor organizing in restaurants and bars really challenging,” said Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. 

Paradoxically, workers in bars and restaurants need the protections of collective bargaining more than nearly any other industry. They face low wages, few benefits and difficult work environments notorious for wage theft, substance abuse, sexual harassment and an industry that for years has relied on the labor of undocumented immigrants.

While unionization does correlate with higher wages for workers, Givan says that especially in the COVID-19 pandemic, unionization is about more than just pay.  

“When workers feel that they have no voice on the job, such as health and safety matters like the COVID-19 pandemic, the protection of a union contract — which contains just cause provisions, which means that they can’t be fired for speaking up on the job — becomes literally a matter of life and death,” Givan said. 

COVID-19 may be creating fertile ground for restaurant and bar union resurgence. In a global pandemic, the prospect of democracy in the workplace has taken on a new valence. Workers are becoming more aware than ever of how expendable they are, in some cases quite literally.

“I think in the spirit of the times and with the uprising, we’re seeing how powerful collective action is,” said Mallory Helmerick, who works in bottling for Tattersall.

UNITE HERE representative Sheigh Freeberg, who is organizing the Tattersall union, said he’s received inquiries from more than a dozen other shops expressing interest in unionizing. “It’s easy to get along when everyone’s working and making money, but your priorities become really clear in times like this,” he said. “Right now, people have an interest in organizing in a way that I’ve never seen before.”

Givan says that it’s too soon to tell whether the pandemic will trigger a union movement across the service industry, but we should at the very least expect increased organizing and collective action in restaurants and bars to demand safety improvements. 

In recent weeks, as some states have reopened their economies, bars and restaurants have proved to be coronavirus hot spots. White House infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told a U.S. Senate panel, “Bars: really not good. Really not good.”

Tattersall workers were moved by both pandemic, George Floyd protests

Tattersall workers were motivated by the newly dangerous working conditions of the pandemic, but also the demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd. 

In the wake of the pandemic and the Floyd events, Tattersall front-of-house workers reached out to management, requesting an all-staff meeting to allow workers to voice their concerns. They wanted to talk about reopening in the pandemic, company-wide racial equity and diversity training and a request to stop hiring off-duty Minneapolis Police Department officers to work at Tattersall events. 

The owners Dan Oskey and Jon Kriedler 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. 

Even more insulting: The requirement was couched as an effort to increase diversity on the staff, even though upper management and ownership are all white. 

Alex Gomez, who works in the front and the back of the house at Tattersall, shows off a union pin. Photo courtesy of Gomez.

Workers were given two days to provide their availability, with the deadline coming on Juneteenth. 

The union drive was on. 

Management was immediately hostile, workers and organizers say. 

During a meeting between workers and management, co-owner Kriedler told UNITE HERE organizer Freeberg to leave the premises or he was calling police, Freeberg said. 

“It’s not unheard of for bosses to get angry, but threatening to call the police was a new one for me,” Freeberg said. “It’s scary that a boss has the ability to call people to come with guns and potentially by force assist in his union busting tactics,” he said.

In a statement to the Reformer, Oskey and Kriedler said, “Mr. Freeberg attempted to attend a private all-staff meeting and became aggressive and combative. He also falsely claimed it was illegal for us to speak with our employees about our plan to eventually return to work.”

On the morning of Sunday June 26, before the workers had made their union drive public, Tattersall management published a Facebook post. They wrote that “we were informed that some of the Tattersall front-of-house and bottling staff are seeking to form a union.” A union, they argued, would sacrifice their core values of “flexibility and adaptability.” They cited their ability during the pandemic to switch their production from booze into making more than 100,000 gallons of All Hands MN hand sanitizer, of which two-thirds they donated to those in need. 

The implication: The presence of a union would prevent these kinds of philanthropic pursuits. 

Several hours and over a thousand mostly pro-union comments later, Tattersall — whose cocktail room was called one of the 22 hottest bars in North America the year it opened by the website Eater — posted an update on Facebook: “We hear you. We are actively engaging with the election process regarding unionization. This is all new to us — we’re listening, learning and know we have made some missteps, but we are committed to finding a solution to move forward.” 

Bryce Laine, bartender, Tattersall.

Later that day Tattersall workers released their own unionization announcement with their grievances, citing the incidents about having to reinterview for their jobs; lack of clarity about employment status during the pandemic; need for more diversity in upper management; worker power in decision-making around COVID-19 and stopping the practice of hiring off duty cops. 

They sought help for back-of-the house workers in particular. In the midst of COVID-19 and the All Hands Sanitizer project, the distillers weren’t being compensated with hazard pay. “That’s completely unacceptable. They’re working hard hours in a global pandemic,” said Tattersall front and back of house worker Alex Gomez. Distillers and bottlers do physically demanding, dangerous work that needs improved wages, benefits and on-the-job safety provisions, they said. 

The workers also called for systemic change in the restaurant and service industry. “Service sector work is typically flexible but also highly precarious, historically feminized and therefore un-unionized, unprotected labor,” the workers said when they announced their unionization drive. 

“It’s about the long game. More than anything we’re interested in how this has the potential to create stability for our lives,” Helmerick said. “Down the line if I’m in the service industry I want to look back and say, ‘I’m so glad that I did that.’”  

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Eamon Whalen
Eamon Whalen

Eamon Whalen is a freelance journalist who has written for The Nation, National Observer, The Fader and Bandcamp.