Militant Journalism

Tucson restaurant workers organize despite union busting by boss

Photo: Prep & Pastry workers and supporters

Workers at the popular brunch restaurant Prep & Pastry on Campbell organized a determined campaign with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99 (UFCW 99) despite the overall lack of union density in the restaurant industry in the United Nations-designated “City of Gastronomy,” Tucson, Arizona. Workers won important concessions from management and are determined to keep up the fight.

Organizing began February 2021 after the working conditions during the first year of the pandemic finally pushed workers to seek legal protections from exploitative business practices conducted by business owner Nathan Ares. Ares is a founder of Ares Collective Group, which owns and operates two Prep & Pastry locations in Tucson, an additional location in Scottsdale, as well as Commoner & Co., and their latest restaurant and market, Flora’s Market Run.

Workplace issues encourage organizing

After labor conditions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the seriousness of exploitative practices restaurant workers endure, Spyncer Wilson, a line cook who has been with Prep & Pastry on Campbell for about three years, decided he was ready to take on the challenges of organizing within the high turn-over industry. He began reaching out to local unions for legal representation, ultimately connecting with UFCW 99.

As restaurants across the country shifted from 50% capacity dine-in mandates to take-out and back again, workers endured the stress of an unstable, unsafe work environment. “Working conditions were terrible. No personal protective equipment was provided to employees, temperature checks were [rarely] enforced [while] sick people and concerns about COVID were laughed off,” recalled Wilson. “Hazard pay was completely out of the picture and customers were not required to social distance or wear masks.” 

Prep & Pastry on Campbell received over $1.5 million from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to alleviate loss of revenue during state and federal mandates to reduce occupancy. Despite being granted PPP funding, hours were cut, many non-salary employees were laid off and management took pay cuts. After unmet safety needs and shrugged off concerns, the lack of transparency with PPP money fostered well-deserved mistrust towards owner Nathan Ares.

At this point Wilson said he “saw the need to organize and get what [they deserved] as workers and people.” His coworkers were generally supportive as “the exploitation [by owners and management] had already driven many to the brink.”

Fight for union recognition met by company retaliation

After months of organizing with support from UFCW 99, at least 30% of workers were in favor of demanding union recognition. On July 15, the Prep & Pastry organizing committee approached management at Ares’ newest restaurant, Flora’s Market Run, and demanded recognition for a union. Their demands included the right to take breaks, job security, paid time off, hazard pay and a progressive discipline process. Ares denied recognition of the union, ushering in the union election process.

Retaliation against union organizing efforts began the following week as several workers, many of whom were present during the delegation at Flora’s Market Run, saw their hours cut.

Ares then began distributing letters, providing workers with information that promoted anti-union organizing, revocation of union support cards and lies about what the union does. Workers were also taken into private meetings with Ares and management to determine their stance towards unionizing. 

Workers suspect election rigging

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) set up a mail-in election process due to concerns about growing COVID-19 cases. Workers were to mail in their ballot by Sept. 3 in order to be accounted for during the tally. On Sept. 13, NLRB representative Joel Ruiz-Lopez in Phoenix began opening a package that was mailed from their offices in Las Vegas, noting that the package was unusually flat. 

The package contained zero ballots! Witnesses from the Prep & Pastry organizing committee stated they had certainly mailed their ballots within the allotted time frame. At least those should certainly have been present. 

The count was initially tallied by Ruiz-Lopez as a 0 – 0 vote, while an investigation for the missing ballots was pushed forward. A week later, the ballots had been accounted for and the tally resumed without clear explanation of why the ballots were initially misplaced. The NLRB results stated a 7-12 loss for union recognition. Organizing committee members were concerned about the handling of the election process as several of their coworker’s ballots were not accounted for, even though they certainly had been mailed in before the deadline. 

Anti-union tactics won’t stop the Prep & Pastry workers

“The election process definitely wasn’t fair,” stated Anthony Sanchez, a line cook and member of the Prep & Pastry organizing committee. Sanchez had concerns regarding management spreading false information about the union to workers at the restaurant. “When somebody higher in the work hierarchy tells you something, you tend to believe them as a reliable source.”

Despite the management’s attempts to crush the union followed by the outcome of the election, the fight for union representation for workers at Prep & Pastry on Campbell continues. UFCW Local 99 will file Unfair Labor Practice charges against the company in an effort to either hold a re-election process or have a judge overturn the election in favor of union representation.

Regardless of hurdles, the Prep & Pastry organizing committee has seen immediate concessions being made in response to their organizing: raises were given to workers, efforts to provide safer working conditions were made and free employee lunches were provided to workers at Flora’s Market Run. One of the most substantial victories for workers at Prep & Pastry is knowing they are able to organize their workplace, build worker power that can threaten the company to get these concessions and will continue to be empowered to win union representation.

“Restaurant workers in Tucson need to unionize in order to secure livelihoods for themselves and their families,” said Wilson, “for far too long restaurant owners have spun a lie of ‘razor-thin’ margins that they use as an excuse to underpay their employees and deny them basic benefits. Restaurant workers deserve a break, that’s why [we all] need to unionize.”

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