Union Kitchen Workers Declare Victory in Their Efforts To Unionize

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Author: Amanda Michelle Gomez
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Roughly 50 retail workers across five of Union Kitchen’s six stores appear to have formed a union.

The National Labor Relations Board determined Tuesday that a majority of Union Kitchen workers voted to unionize, according to the freshly-minted labor union’s collective bargaining agent, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400. The NLRB reviewed the results of the formal election, which took place three months ago, after CEO and founder Cullen Gilchrist challenged some ballots — including those of two vocally pro-union workers who cast ballots but were fired before their votes had been counted. 

NLRB press secretary Kayla Blado confirmed that a majority of valid votes cast had been in favor of the union, 20 to 11. Barring no new objections, Blado says certification will happen by June 29.

The announcement underscores the determination workers have to organize, with many new unions forming across the region — most recently an Apple store in Baltimore — in spite of the variety of obstacles they face.

Union Kitchen’s contract negotiations are expected to be contentious, considering how challenging forming the union was. Workers faced great opposition from Gilchrist ever since they went public with their union drive in late January. They’ve accused him of union-busting and filed multiple unfair labor practice claims with the NLRB.

Gilchrist, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing.

“I genuinely came close to crying. I spent 30 hours a week working on this. I spent personal money and spent time. This has mattered so much to me,” says one of the union leaders, Mckenna Willis. “People have been through a lot, and just the ability to say this is really worth it and [to] have something tangible means the world to everyone.”

Willis worked at the Ballston store up until two weeks ago. She says she resigned because of the way management treated her and her colleagues. At least five union supporters have been fired over the last six months. The union questions their firings, believing they had only been let go because of their involvement in organizing their workplace.

She also believes management targeted her, saying her hours were cut. When Willis did work, she felt unreasonably scrutinized. The treatment began to take a toll on her mental health, she says. “Is this the day that I get fired? Or something gets made up about me? I came in everyday wondering ‘is this the day’ because I knew so many friends of mine had been written up or fired.”

She plans on continuing her participation in the union, calling it the “right thing to do.” “It’s not really about the benefits for me. It never was,” Willis adds.

Gilchrist did not respond to requests for comment, on Willis’ allegations or the union outcome.

Travis Acton, a staff organizer for UFCW Local 400, says the union has not formally heard from Gilchrist following the NLRB review. He also suspects contract negotiations to be a struggle.

“I don’t expect Cullen to magically become pro-union now jut because workers won. Our contract fight will be worker-led and worker-focused,” Acton says, adding that workers are interested in pay raises, improved staff levels and time off.

They have also wanted more of a say on store policies. Union Kitchen recently posted signs that ban students from entering, citing theft and violence. The ban made some workers uncomfortable. Prior to the ban, a former worker named Gabe Wittes got into tense disagreements with his manager, who he said wanted to call the police on Black children because they would occasionally steal candy bars. Wittes worried about law enforcement escalating the situation and criminalizing Black youth.

Gilchrist told the Washington Business Journal that he will respect the outcome of the election and negotiate with the union. He also questioned how many people who voted for the union are still employed at Union Kitchen.

Acton says the labor board found wrongdoing on the part of management, which the NLRB’s Blado confirmed. “We filed Unfair Labor Practice charges for more than a dozen allegations of unlawful retaliation against employees supportive of the union. And the fact is, the Labor Board has found merit in 90% of the charges,” he says.

He says the labor board is now weighing whether to seek an injunction against against the company or issue a complaint. Similar to Starbucks, Union Kitchen could be forced to reinstate some workers. Blado says the regional director will issue a complaint if the parties do not settle.

Source URL: https://portside.org/2022-06-22/union-kitchen-workers-declare-victory-their-efforts-unionize