HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — On the first Knead-less Friday night in Midtown Harrisburg since the restaurant opened in 2016, labor activists are wondering what’s next for their movement.
Sam Weymouth, who has a nascent organization called “717 Restaurant Workers United,” has tried and failed to help organize workers at three restaurants. That includes Harrisburg’s Cork & Fork, where he works — and where he says he’s now a lot happier than back during the union drive (“I feel like a lot of employers do have a good heart,” Weymouth said) — and The Olive Garden in Bloomsburg, Pa.
Despite the failure, trying to organize the chain restaurant was “kind of exciting,” he said.
He said as far as he knows, that one failed not because of anything management did. He’s not sure whether management was even aware of the effort.
“The one that really killed that was just like the constant turnover,” which he said is common in the industry. “It’s just like, people can get a different job elsewhere.”
He wasn’t involved in — but was supportive of — the Knead unionization effort.
Ditto for Shua Ilgenfritz, a longtime Harrisburg restaurant worker who currently works at a barista.
“It was inspirational for the whole city,” Ilgenfritz said. “We were all watching.”
Efforts to reach Knead management were unsuccessful. But restaurant industry representatives say life is already hard enough for restaurant owners. The cost of food is surging. And wages?
“Our members are reporting anywhere from a 10- to 40-percent increase in wages,” said Joe Massaro, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. “Specifically, we just did a poll on full-time waitstaff. [Their] median income is $27 an hour.”
Labor activists say it’s not just a question of money but of — for example, according to Ilgenfritz — things like “healthy schedules, clear communication, healthy work environments, understanding of what your job is and what isn’t your job.”
But does unionization achieve those things? Yes, according to Hannah Holliday, who is a union-represented server at a Philadelphia restaurant called The Wayward. She helped lead the 2021 representation drive. Now, according to Holliday?
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“A lot of people got immediate raises when that happened,” she said. “But there’s like a lot of non-economic stuff too that was really important too.”
For example, she said, guaranteed auto-gratuities on certain checks and job protections like “a process for ‘just cause,’ which is like, you can’t just be like fired.
“So many people have like experiences of being fired on the spot because they p***** off the wrong manager or the wrong chef. And then they’re just asked to not come back or they’re like written off the schedule,” she said.
Now “we can actually stand up and say, ‘No, this is a contract. This is a violation of our contract.’ And that’s been really — I just like feeling more like stable and able to have respect from our managers and just generally, there is a process,” Holliday said.
“You can, like, be your whole self at work and not have to just take things because some manager’s having a bad day,” she added.
Massaro, of the restaurant association, said unions can hurt — not help — the relationship between management and workers.
“We believe direct communication between our operators and their employees is essential for a healthy workplace — and one that’s open, two-way, is best,” he said.
And he said non-economic terms have already improved for workers at restaurants everywhere, the majority of which are non-union.
“Benefits have been added – workplace amenities and and things of that nature,” Massaro said. “Operators have been very creative in finding ways to be flexible with work schedules and provide other resources to the workplace. However, we’re still trying to make up ground” from unprecedented losses during the pandemic.
He said competition for labor, in an industry that is still one million workers short of what it would need to be fully staffed, is causing the market-based improvements.