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Employees of Union Kitchen in Ballston are looking to unionize

Union Kitchen in Ballston (staff photo)

(Updated, 5:00 p.m.) Employees at Union Kitchen in Ballston are looking to unionize, joining colleagues at other area locations.

The employees cite pay cuts, lack of sick leave, and staffing shortages among the reasons for organizing.

In late January, employees at three Union Kitchen stores in D.C. filed union petitions, as DCist reported. Within days, workers at the Ballston location joined those efforts, Union Kitchen union organizing committee member and Ballston employee Mckenna Willis tells ARLnow.

Now, employees at all five open locations have signaled their intent to unionize. That includes eight eligible employees in Ballston.

A mail-in election is set for Tuesday, March 8 with a count planned for March 28. Workers are holding a “pre-election rally” in D.C. this Saturday.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 would be the collective bargaining agent for the store’s employees if the vote passes.

Union Kitchen started as a food accelerator, helping food and beverage startups by providing business and technical expertise, and has since grown into a retail shop and restaurant. The Ballston location opened at 4238 Wilson Blvd in August 2020, offering a mix of packaged food, beverage and convenience items for sale as well as a takeout menu of breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, melts and pizzas.

Many of the reasons for organizing are common across all of the locations, but Willis explains that a number of these grievances are acutely felt at the Ballston location.

Earlier this year, management stopped providing customers the option to tip on their payments. This has effectively cut employees’ pay by three or four dollars an hour, according to Willis.

In February, management sent a notice, which was provided to ARLnow by Union Kitchen CEO Cullen Gilchrist, to workers that they were “increasing compensation by almost 20% on average across all positions.”

Willis says that increase does not come close to making up for the lost wages from losing tips. She explains that the Ballston location has more “established” employees — those with families, mortgages, and long-term relationships — than the other locations and can not afford what is effectively a pay cut.

Union Kitchen management, which has said it won’t voluntarily recognize the union, wrote that employees’ compensation is “industry leading pay.”

“We pay a minimum wage of $18/hr with an average compensation in our Ballston store of $28.5/hr,” Gilchrist wrote to ARLnow in an email. “We are very proud of our ability to pay so well.”

As for why tips were cut, Gilchrist said this is what customers wanted.

“The vast majority of customers don’t tip, and many of those who did felt pressure to do so,” he told DCist. “We’re trying to make our customers comfortable.”

Sick leave is also an employee concern, with Willis calling Union Kitchen’s Covid policy “horrible.” During the pandemic, Willis says employees wanted to take sick leave as a precaution but didn’t want to risk not getting paid.

Willis says she lives with her father and when he contracted Covid, she told work she wasn’t coming in because “it was the right thing to do.” She was told it would be unpaid leave.

Additionally, “severe” staffing shortages have hit the Wilson Blvd location of Union Kitchen hard. While Willis acknowledges that this is an issue across the industry at large, she says management is not handling it appropriately.

“We’ve had severe understaffing issues, but there are over expectations,” Willis says. “They want over delivery for cutting our pay and not having enough staff.”

In regards to the understaffing issues, Gilchrist says that the stores “staff to our budget at all of our locations.”

Workers are also alleging that management is engaging in union-busting tactics and retaliation. Last month, management fired a lead union organizer from one of its D.C. stores.

Federal law states that employees can’t be fired, demoted, or penalized for forming or joining a union.

Willis says she’s experienced these tactics first hand, noting that her hours were cut after a meeting with Gilchrist.

In a statement to ARLnow, Gilchrist wrote that “Union Kitchen has not and will not retaliate against employees for unionizing. We want all employees to have their voice and have the opportunity to vote for a union or not for a union.”

Unlike other locations, there are no current plans for employees at the Ballston location to go on strike, but that could change.

“My feelings are that we likely will have to strike during bargaining,” says Willis. “If Cullen’s current attitude continues.”

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