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Why Is It So Hard to Unionize a Bar? It’s Complicated.

April 12, 2024

Story: Gaby Del Valle

art: Joseph Gough


Why Is It So Hard to Unionize a Bar? It’s Complicated.

April 12, 2024

Story: Gaby Del Valle

art: Joseph Gough

Death & Co.’s recent union drive could have made history. But the failed effort underscores the challenges that come with unionizing bar staff, even as restaurants, cafés and hotels see an uptick in labor organizing.

When workers at Death & Co.’s New York City location announced they were unionizing last fall, the organizers expected a quick, if not entirely painless, process. “With 100% of workers signing union authorization cards, we’re confident that we will soon be able to build a workplace that works for EVERYONE,” the aspiring union wrote in an announcement on Instagram. But Gin & Luck, the parent company that runs the cocktail bar, didn’t voluntarily recognize the union, triggering an election with the National Labor Relations Board. Still, the bartenders leading the effort were undeterred. “You’re just gonna see 100% of us voting yes,” Marc Rizzuto, a bartender at Death & Co., told Fingers last November.

But when the time came for the NLRB election in mid-December, the votes weren’t there. Ten of Death & Co.’s 18 workers voted against the union. “I still don’t know what happened,” says Rizzuto. “People haven’t been completely open to speaking about it. But from my perspective, people just got scared.”

If the vote had succeeded, Death & Co. would’ve made history. While there’s been a recent wave of labor organizing in the service industry since the onset of the pandemic, it hasn’t yet reached most bars. In New York City, workers at bars in hotels, such as Broken Shaker at the Freehand, are represented by larger units that include hotel employees. Restaurants, bakeries and even dine-in movie theaters have successfully organized, and while some serve alcohol, they aren’t bars

Unionized bars are few and far between. Some recent efforts to organize have been unsuccessful, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which put additional stresses on the hospitality industry and, in some cases, led to closures. Oddly Enough, a queer bar in Brooklyn whose workers announced in 2022 that they were taking steps toward holding a union election, closed this past January. Workers at Crush, one of the oldest queer bars in Portland, Oregon, formed a workers collective in March 2020 and organized a protest in response to COVID-related layoffs, but the bar closed last December. In other instances, bar owners have been antagonistic toward unions. Workers at the storied Chicago queer bar Berlin went public with their union campaign in March 2023; eight months later, Berlin’s owners closed the bar, which had been open for four decades, citing boycotts that ensued after management refused to recognize the union.

“Unfortunately, workers face an uphill climb with most demands for recognition,” says Richard Minter, the director of organizing for Workers United, who assisted the Death & Co. employees in their unionization efforts. “Employers often view the union as a hindrance to their success.”

The hesitancy to recognize unions is not limited to the nightlife industry. But Minter, who has been a labor organizer for more than 27 years, notes it’s rare for bar workers to unionize, and organizers don’t typically tend to target them. “The last group of workers that I represented directly were members at a place called McFadden’s in Philadelphia,” says Minter. Though the unionization effort was successful, the bar shut down in 2018 after 14 years in business. 

To organize a workplace, employees typically reach out to people like Minter, or to unions at other workplaces. For example, at Nitehawk, a unionized movie theater in Brooklyn, employees contacted Barboncino workers for advice after the restaurant’s successful union drive. Organizers also identify restaurants and bars where unions could help improve working conditions. But bar employees don’t typically reach out, for myriad reasons. 

According to Connor Smith, of Workers Tap, an employee-owned beer bar in Portland, Oregon, some of the same things that draw workers to bars—including the ease of job-hopping and the ability to make a lot of money in tips—may make them harder to unionize. “When people are changing jobs every six to nine months, it’s hard to get people to come together and be like, ‘This place sucks, but let’s stick it out and form a union here.’ Usually when a place sucks, people just leave,” Smith says.

Alex Dinndorf, who organizes hospitality workers within a committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, says another hurdle for bar workers is that the conditions are often better than at restaurants. “There are plenty of bars in Manhattan that are extremely profitable and employees will work there for a decade,” he says.

Death & Co. is one such bar. It’s in the upper echelon of cocktail bars, part of a growing nationwide group, with employees who have been there for years. Bartenders make a base of $16 per hour, and have 401(k)s and health insurance, a rarity in the service industry. But some workers found the job duties demanding, and hoped a union could advocate for more equitable shifts and hours among the staff. “Easily, whenever you’re barbacking, you can enter, like, 10-hour shifts,” says Jorge Antonio Giron Vives, a former Death & Co. barback who handed in their two weeks’ notice shortly before the election. (A Gin & Luck spokesperson said most bartenders and barbacks work three days a week, while a few work four days a week, and confirmed that barbacks do work 10-hour shifts.) 

Gin & Luck CEO Dave Kaplan, for his part, maintains that he and the rest of management were unaware of workers’ concerns before the organizing workers went public. “No grievances were ever shared with us,” Kaplan says. “Leading up to the election, we had a number of staff come up to us and tell us they no longer believed in this, and then they shared their concerns—and they originally signed the unionization cards.”

Rizzuto, one of the bartenders who led the unionization effort at Death & Co., previously told Fingers that they hoped the effort would inspire bartenders elsewhere to follow in their footsteps. Dinndorf agrees: “Success kind of creates a lot more success,” he says.

Failed unionization efforts, meanwhile, can have a chilling effect. Tim, a Brooklyn bartender who declined to give his last name, says some people in the industry may fear that unionizing is more trouble than it’s worth. “Let’s say you’re pulling $60, $70K as a bartender in your town. If you feel like you’re in a good spot, there is a fear to that change—a fear that you’re not going to be making as much, or that you’re going to lose something,” he says. Tim says that fear keeps hospitality workers in precarious conditions, and though he’s always enjoyed relatively high wages as a bartender, there are some drawbacks, like a lack of health insurance.

In recent years, some bars have tried alternative models, such as worker-owned cooperatives. Compared to a union, in this model, “employees aren’t just working for one owner but are working to build a cooperative, and they share in the profits each year,” says Lauren Ruiz, one of three worker-owners at Donna, a cocktail bar in New York’s West Village that re-established as a co-op in 2022 after a pandemic-forced closure in 2020. Employees at Donna are eligible for ownership after they’ve been with the bar for at least a year, provided the other worker-owners vote them in. 

Ana Shaba, beverage director and general manager, says that in practice, Donna runs just like any other bar. The difference is that she and other workers feel like they have a say. Shaba, who has been at Donna for about six months and is not yet a worker-owner, says management encourages the bartenders, servers and barbacks to speak up when something isn’t working, and workers there have some say in scheduling. Ultimately, the goal is to build a workplace where everyone feels valued, which, Shaba says, isn’t the case at every bar. “There are places that can be very toxic because they’re privately owned, or they don’t care about you or the labor that you put in,” she says.

Sam Wooley, a bartender in Brooklyn, has noticed a tendency to romanticize the intense, occasionally exploitative working conditions in the hospitality industry. “If you’re working in a busy place, you get destroyed by how busy it is for six to eight hours, and then you go and party for four to six hours, and then you sort of rinse and repeat,” he says. Wooley previously worked at a wine bar where the bartenders had “very difficult relationships with management, but ... always, by the end of a shift, we’d do a shot with them,” he recalls.

Portland’s Workers Tap also operates with the worker-owner model. Smith, one of the bar’s four worker-owners, says he opened the taproom with friends in 2022 with the intent of making it a hub for union organizing. Though Smith says he’d be happy to help other bartenders figure out how to open their own cooperatives, he’d much rather focus on providing a space for unions to organize; he feels they “are the more viable, larger-scale method of obtaining worker power” because of the upfront costs of opening a business. Opening any new business—let alone a worker-owned one—is risky, and Smith says most bartenders don’t have the option to pour their life savings into a venture that could end up failing. 

Author and former bartender John deBary, who started his career at New York’s Please Don’t Tell, says that years of the “startender era” of the aughts—a time when working at high-end cocktail bars could mean becoming a celebrity in your own right—created the mentality among bartenders that there’s always a better job out there.

“There’s this idea that you could go somewhere else if you’re not being appreciated, because you have a brand already and you’re sort of known, rather than trying to roll up your sleeves and fix the conditions where you’re working,” deBary says. But “with turnover, it’s very chicken and egg. Maybe if you had a union, the turnover wouldn’t be as big a problem. You’d have a better place to work, and then there wouldn’t be this cycle.”

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Gaby Del Valle is a Brooklyn-based reporter whose work focuses on labor and immigration.