Food and beverage workers union eyes future growth

UNITED WE STAND: Asheville Food and Beverage United seeks to interrupt “the abusive culture that just keeps being perpetuated” in the local service industry, explains lead organizer Jen Hampton. Photo courtesy of Hampton

Bri Snyder left the coffee industry in January.

They had worked at half a dozen coffee shops in Asheville and found similar issues everywhere. (Snyder uses they/them pronouns.) Owners were “expecting a lot from very few people,” Snyder explains, citing examples such as requiring “two baristas to handle customers, make recipes, clean, stock everything and promise everyone great customer service.” Those workplace expectations were “unmanageable and stressful” and caused burnout among staff, they say.

Yet their biggest concern was how management at these various shops seemed to normalize burnout. “Whenever we as a staff raised concerns, [we were] absolutely invalidated,” Snyder explains. “‘Everyone else has done it, you can, too. You just need to toughen up. Care less.’”

Snyder’s experience propelled them toward the effort to shift the culture of the service industry in Asheville. They are now one of 48 members of Asheville Food and Beverage United, a coalition of service workers that affiliated with the nationwide union Restaurant Workers United in November. On Feb. 20, AFBU held its first member meeting.

AFBU seeks to interrupt “the abusive culture that just keeps being perpetuated,’” explains Jen Hampton, the union’s lead organizer.

Before joining Just Economics in 2023, Hampton’s work in the service industry spanned over 30 years, with the last 16 in Asheville. Throughout her career, Hampton says she often felt guilty for taking time off when she was sick. Furthermore, sexual harassment was so common that “you [didn’t] even think twice about it after a while.”

Seeing a younger generation refuse to accept these conditions as the status quo gives her hope, Hampton continues. “People are realizing their worth, even though we get treated in the industry like we’re disposable and replaceable at any time,” she says.

United by parking woes

Hampton learned about local organizing in spring 2021 on a thread on the Facebook group Food and Beverage Tribe. Intrigued, she continued to convene with local service workers in person. Her interest led her to the 2022 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, where she learned the nuts and bolts of labor organizing. Workshops covered basics such as the importance of canvassing workers for input and identifying the most “widely and deeply felt issue” to focus on, Hampton explains.

Back in Asheville, Hampton learned service workers wanted fair scheduling and a livable wage. But above all, they bemoaned downtown parking rates  At the time, remembers Hampton, “Everyone [was] feeling it, workers and owners included.”

Hampton began organizing workers to address these costs. Not yet a union, the Asheville Food and Beverage United was described then as a worker-led coalition. Member Jack Paksoy says the parking campaign drew him to AFBU. At the time, he worked as a line cook and says if he was lucky, he could nab a $3 parking space for 12 hours. But those parking spots were hard to get, especially on weekend nights. Sometimes Paksoy paid $60-$80 a week to park during work, calling it “a fair bit of my wages.”

Other workers in downtown Asheville could pay $15 per day for parking, or $85 per month to lease a parking space, according to a Sept. 6, 2022, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners presentation on affordable parking. That year, the commission approved a $40 monthly parking pass for 150 spaces downtown for service industry and retail workers; in August, the commission added 50 parking spots at a second location.

The parking campaign’s success was an early sign that unifying service workers in Asheville had legs: In spring 2022, AFBU sought legal status as a union and launched a membership campaign in November upon affiliating with Restaurant Workers United.

PAYING TO WORK: Former line cook Jack Paksoy says he got involved in AFBU’s campaign for affordable parking downtown. He says he sometimes paid $60-$80 a week to park during work, calling it “a fair bit of my wages.” Photo courtesy of Paksoy

Although restaurant, bar and brewery employees compose most of the AFBU membership, service workers in retail and hospitality are also eligible, Hampton says. Members have the option of paying $10 per month in dues for representation by the union on employment-related matters, but a one-year waiver for dues is also available.

The affiliation with Restaurant Workers United provides AFBU  with benefits from “pooled resources of funds and people,”  Hampton says. AFBU contributes 20% of its dues to RWU for a nationwide strike fund.

‘Everybody cares about something’

Hampton says she once believed unions were illegal in North Carolina. It’s an understandable mistake: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2023, only 2.7% of the state’s wage and salary workers were union members — the second-lowest in the nation. North Carolina is also a right-to-work state, meaning there are laws restricting union activity.

Much of her role as lead organizer of AFBU is providing education about workers’ rights, particularly existing federal protections. “If you take an action to address a workplace issue with at least one other co-worker, that is considered under federal law to be union activity, whether you are officially a union or not,” she says.

At the 2022 Labor Notes Conference, Hampton attended a workshop called “Beating Apathy” about how to address barriers that people may have to labor organizing. “I learned apathy isn’t real,” she shares. “Everybody cares about something.”

Hampton says her role is to find that “something” by asking open-ended questions and then listening. “If you let people talk, they’re going to tell you what they care about,” she says. Then she’ll ask: “‘How do you think we could fix that? What would it be like if that was different?’”

Hampton encounters individuals who are interested in organizing but fearful of retaliation. “I don’t B.S. people — I say, ‘Unfortunately, that could happen,’” she says. “‘But if we do this strategically, and we keep it on the down-low, and we have enough people with us, it’s not so easy [to retaliate]. … They can’t fire everybody all at once.’”

Labor locally

In March 2023, workers at Green Sage Cafe − South voted in favor of a union with Teamsters Local 61, the Western North Carolina branch of the nationwide labor union. AFBU helped Green Sage Cafe − South employees form an organizing committee, and it educated them on particular tactics management may use to discourage labor organizing, Hampton explains.

In a statement to Xpress, Green Sage owner Randy Talley says, “Green Sage Cafe and the Teamsters Local 61 have worked diligently and in good faith to find common ground over the last six months. Recently, the Teamsters Local 61 expressed appreciation for Green Sage management’s commitment to its employees and withdrew representation of the bargaining unit.”

Talley continued, “Green Sage values our employees and continues to work for what is best for our team, our company and our community.”

In a statement to Xpress, Brian Ball from Teamsters Local 61 shared, “Our union has met with the employees and management team at Green Sage over the past several months. Together we have improved communication, fixed issues and accomplished many goals. We wish Green Sage and their employees all the best in the future.”

Ball said Teamsters Local 61 filed a disclaimer of interest with the National Labor Relations Board, which stops its representation of Green Sage South. In April, it will have been one year since the NLRB originally certified the union election for Green Sage South employees. At that point, employees could reengage with the Teamsters. (Green Sage union leader Ariana Lingerfeldt did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Tastee Diner executive chef and owner Steven Goff says his employees haven’t organized, but he would support it. He calls labor organizing “something much needed in our city, and I’m more than happy to see staff have a say.”

Goff appreciates that AFBU is a local union, adding, “My chef friends in California have not been huge fans of [unions], like once the Teamsters get involved.” (The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is the largest union in the U.S. and encompasses multiple industries.)

“That’s something that I’m not sure how I feel about — when an outside third party comes in, people that aren’t part of our industry,” Goff continues. “I just worry they’re also fleecing people in a different way than owners are.”

However, Goff says AFBU has done a “great job” so far and was particularly impressed with the parking campaign.

Upcoming goals

AFBU’s broad goal is to change industry standards through a citywide coalition of service workers. A top priority to address is wage theft, a term that can refer to practices such as refusing to pay overtime or requiring employees to set up for their workday off the clock.

AFBU can assist workers with issues by speaking to their employer on their behalf while keeping the employee’s identity anonymous.

For example, Hampton says a worker contacted AFBU because the employer deducted the cost of lost inventory from workers’ paychecks every week. (Hampton declined to name the employer.) Hampton contacted the employer on the worker’s behalf. Ultimately, that employer reimbursed the staff.

Health care benefits are also on the to-do list. Hampton is currently seeking a health care subscription plan at a discounted rate for AFBU members.

Other plans for AFBU include an upcoming sexual harassment prevention workshop and training on how to address drug-faciliated sexual assault, which will be held with Our VOICE, a nonprofit advocating for survivors of sexual violence. Hampton hopes for it to be part of a larger discussion about sexual harassment against service workers. “Sexual harassment doesn’t get enough attention, and it’s just rampant,” she says.

It isn’t only customers who harass service workers, Hampton adds. “The majority of the time [sexual harassment is done by] managers and owners,” she explains. “And not just men. Female owners, too, think that they can go around groping any employee they want or making whatever comment they want.”

Higher wages

Advocating for livable wages is one of the reasons some AFBU members got involved, they tell Xpress

Just Economics of Western North Carolina recently updated its living wage rate for Buncombe County to $22.10. As a line cook, Paksoy says he usually earned $19-$20 per hour, and that was barely enough to scrape by.

He currently lives in UNC Asheville student housing, which he says is more affordable than renting here. “Anytime I apartment search in Asheville, they’re insane about what they want,” he says. When he graduates in May, Paksoy will have to move out of student housing. He anticipates still working in Asheville but says he will not being able to afford to live here.

Snyder, the former coffee shop worker, also advocates for higher wages. They’re troubled by the gap between what many people working in industries supporting Asheville tourism earn versus the region’s cost of living. They see service workers burning out from their jobs and new workers replacing them without a change in working conditions. “This constant cycle isn’t healthy for a community, and it’s not healthy for a workplace,” they say.

Labor organizing “is the avenue that I have chosen,” they say. “Because if I didn’t do anything, I think I would go crazy.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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6 thoughts on “Food and beverage workers union eyes future growth

  1. dyfed

    Baristas and line cooks don’t make $20/hr because the owners are evil and are keeping them down, they make $20/hr because most restaurants and coffee shops are barely viable businesses and their highest cost is labor. Increasing wages to more than that makes most restaurants financially nonviable. No amount of union representation will change that fact

    • Joe Hill

      Unions won’t prevent businesses from being profitable, but will guarantee that employees receive the maximum value of their labor.

      • dyfed

        If you think unionization of workforces can’t drive you out of profitability you’re completely out of touch with any kind of economic history. A rational union wouldn’t but many unions have bargained irrationally, and the advantage of unions in negotiation (monopolizing the source of labor so non-union workers can’t compete) ensures that these industries can’t escape, except by leaving the country. For manufacturing this is easy. For strictly local businesses like cafes it merely squelches the ability to grow and the formation of new businesses, and doesn’t accomplish much for the workers because unskilled baristas at almost always already at the limit of their market power in terms of wages—unionization doesn’t help a worker much when the marginal product of that worker was near zero anyway

        It’s like McDonald’s. Unionization of McDonald’s workers will only increase the speed of kiosk adoption; the cost of the workers makes them barely worth it. Your average cafe or short order diner is no different

    • csconsulting101

      I hear you. And, I would like to add a perspective. Most labor concerns aren’t labor concerns. There is usually a solution in other departments to fix said labor concerns. Their high cost of labor would be okay if training and other areas of the business were optimized to then make a profit.

  2. indy499

    The Teamsters bolted beacuse there is no $ in this for them. Surprised they engaged to start with. Remember, there are three parties involved in these relationships—management, the union and the workers. The union is a business with dues as revenue and various costs. If the costs > revenue they exit

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