Feb 9, 2022 - News

A union attempt at Union Kitchen

The exterior of Union Kitchen's Ballston location.

Union Kitchen's Ballston location. Photo: Paige Hopkins/Axios

A group of Union Kitchen employees from the company’s 3rd St. NE, 9th St. NW, and Eckington locations is pushing forward with a unionization attempt.

Why it matters: The unionization effort reflects the larger pandemic-era trend of workers, specifically those in the food and service industry, demanding better working conditions. 

Driving the news: Union Kitchen union organizers tell us that the National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing next week to determine the scope of the bargaining unit ahead of a potential vote.

What’s happening: Pro-union employees say they started organizing after noticing a discrepancy between the amount of tips they received and the tips they’d actually earned.

Since announcing the union effort, some say they’ve experienced retaliation from management by way of unfair, first-time disciplinary notices, as was reported last month by DCist.

“I believe in what Union Kitchen could be, but the last two weeks I think have been so disheartening in the abandonment of our values, our purported values, as a company by management,” Union Kitchen trainer Gabriel Wittes tells Axios. “I think it’s been just really heartbreaking to see the malice and the attacks that workers have sustained by the people that are supposed to take care of them.”

  • Management announced that it would increase hourly wages and eliminate the option to tip. But, Wittes says the hourly increase is less than what he and others normally make in tips.

The other side: The food accelerator and grocery store says it followed all applicable laws regarding tips. CEO Cullen Gilchrist tells Axios that most Union Kitchen customers don’t tip, and tips are unfair because back-of-the-house employees, such as cooks, don’t benefit from them.  

  • A Union Kitchen statement says in part: "Union Kitchen supports union elections, free from intimidation and coercion by UFCW, ourselves, or others. We will never intimidate, threaten or make promises to fight a union. We want the will of the majority of Union Kitchen staff to be heard, and will continue to work to ensure we cultivate a positive culture that provides high quality, well-paying jobs and careers for our team...”

Some employees, specifically those outside of the District, say they’re happy with their wages and the support they get from management. 

  • “Honestly I was kind of shocked at first,” Matt Behringer, a manager in training at the Ballston location who started his own company through the food accelerator, says after learning about the union drive. “My experience in the company does not match what I’ve been reading in the articles and in the news.”

Zoom in: There’s also been a disagreement between Union Kitchen management and union organizers regarding the number of employees in support of a union. Gilchrist says only five workers, representing 5% of the company, held a rally and went on strike over the weekend, but Wittes says 11 workers were at the rally, and support for unionizing at the three locations is strong. 

  • Union organizers have accused management of trying to union-bust by quickly hiring new employees ahead of a vote, but Gilchrist says the company’s hiring pace hasn’t changed.

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