From my seat at the bar of the popular Crown Heights pizzeria Barboncino on Memorial Day evening, I could see Jared Berrien, a pizza chef, or pizzaiolo, who has worked at Barboncino for about a year, stationed outside of the restaurant’s wood-fired hearth. Berrien told me that the volume of orders that come in on a night like this one makes the work resemble an assembly line. I could see he wasn’t wrong: between delivery orders and in-person dining, it was hard to keep track of the number of pizzas he was plating.
“After doing prep work and rolling dough at the start of a shift, I’ll plant myself in front of the oven or toss out dough for the next five to seven hours,” says Berrien. “I’ll be in one spot the entire time, only running off the line to get water or go to the bathroom.”
A week before my visit, workers at Barboncino — both those in the back of the house like Berrien and those in the front, the servers and bussers and bartenders like Mike Kemmett, who flitted from one end of the bar to the other on Monday night, mixing cocktails and helping patrons decide which of the restaurant’s many pizzas to order — filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is one of the ways workers can organize a union. Organizing with Workers United, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate that is behind the Starbucks union drive, the Barboncino workers hope to become the first stand-alone unionized pizzeria in New York City.
Few food-service workers in the United States are unionized. Should Barboncino Workers United (BWU) succeed, it could kick off other union campaigns among the city’s restaurant workers. Once Workers United organized one Starbucks, that model was quickly replicated across the country; the union hopes that, despite the differences in one campaign at a megacorporation versus many campaigns at smaller businesses, the similarities in the type of work and the worker-to-worker organizing model used in the Starbucks effort might create a domino effect in the restaurant industry.
While BWU has asked for voluntary recognition from Emma Walton and Jesse Shapell, who took over ownership of the restaurant from chef and indie filmmaker Ron Brown late last year, they say that they are prepared for an NLRB election in which all of the restaurant’s workers would vote in a secret-ballot election. Of the roughly forty nonmanagement employees at Barboncino, a supermajority have signed union-authorization cards.
“Barboncino’s ownership is aware some of its employees have shown an interest in unionizing,” Walton told me in an email. “Barboncino will continue, as always, to support its customers, community and employees.”
“We’re going to win the election,” says Alex Dinndorf, a server and busser who has worked at Barboncino for almost two years. “It’s not even going to be close.”
The Night of the Poop
If you ask Kemmett why he and his coworkers decided to unionize Barboncino, he’ll mention an incident he refers to as “poop night.”
It was the summer of 2022, when the restaurant was still owned by Brown, and Kemmett was working when a pipe exploded. The leak led wastewater to flood the basement, mixing with cleaning products and insect removal chemicals that were stored there.
Tasked with cleaning up the mess, Kemmett, a busser, and a dishwasher used trash bags to create “fisherman’s pants” before wading into the almost knee-high water, he says. “We were marching around in the muck, filling up these bins and ditching the water anywhere we could.”
When they finished, Barboncino was still meant to be open for another two and a half hours. They say they were told to resume serving food.
“Which was crazy,” says Kemmett, “because the basement is where hundreds of trays of dough are prepped and stored.”
He says that the shift manager that night knew this was an absurd request, but Brown had told him that if the pair refused to resume service, he would consider it a “mutinous act.” (Brown did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.) Kemmett and the busser decided to leave, even if it meant being fired.
He ended up throwing out the clothes and boots he had worn during the shift. On the way home, Kemmett called Brendan O’Connor, who was also working at Barboncino at the time. Kemmett wanted help finding a lawyer to defend himself and the busser if they were fired. They kept their jobs (Kemmett says the shift manager helped cover for them), but he and O’Connor spoke again.
“I said, ‘So I didn’t get fired, but this is still wrong,’” remembers Kemmett. “‘Maybe we should do something bigger.’”
Within twenty-four hours, O’Connor had contacted the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint project of the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America that offers organizing assistance to workers who are in the early stages of what might become a union campaign.
“Two days later, we were in contact with EWOC and starting the whole process,” says Kemmett.
O’Connor, a graduate student and writer, told me, “Though I’m no longer at Barboncino, it was my honor to organize with these workers and I can’t wait to celebrate recognition over union pizza.”
Organizing at Both Ends of the House
Shortly after Walton and Shepell took over ownership of Barboncino, the workers circulated a petition requesting a staff meeting. They wanted a raise, disciplinary protections, and input on the restaurant’s employee handbook, particularly as it pertained to handling sexual harassment by customers — an incredibly common complaint in the industry.
Dinndorf says that around three-quarters of the restaurant’s workers signed the petition. A staff-led meeting took place in November, and the workers read testimonies about what a living wage would mean for them. The restaurant’s front-of-house workers receive $10 an hour plus tips, a rate that they say has not increased since Barboncino opened in 2011. They want to raise that to $15 plus tips. Back-of-house workers say that their pay varies widely: an inexperienced young employee might start at $18 an hour, while those more senior may begin at $22 or $23.
Asked about these numbers, Walton wrote, “Barboncino offers a competitive hourly wage that complies with minimum wage requirements.”
Dinndorf says that the owners agreed to a follow-up meeting in January, at which they refused to increase wages or negotiate disciplinary protections, though they later granted raises to some back-of-house workers. By that point, the employees were already speaking with Workers United.
“It was one of the most popular things we’ve done in the campaign,” says Dinndorf of the decision to organize with Workers United. “They offer so much help that we can’t even use it all.” Every Barboncino worker with whom I spoke echoed that sentiment.
Dinndorf also says that the choice to work with Workers United helped overcome divisions between front-of-house and back-of-house workers within the pizzeria, an obstacle in almost every organizing campaign in food service. When BWU began to form, the organizing committee was primarily led by front-of-house workers, who tend to be the prototypical downwardly mobile, college-educated white millennial.
“All of these people who are in the service industry are normally in a kind of antagonistic division of labor together,” explains Dinndorf. “Part of overcoming that was joining a big organization so we can say, if the owners threaten to close the restaurant down, we have lawyers and people who we can trust.”
Berrien was another key to breaking through those divisions. He has more than a decade of experience in kitchens ranging from diners to fine dining; at Barboncino, his duties include making pizzas and salads, prepping the kitchen, making dough, and thinking up specials and the staff meal.
He cites the pandemic as a factor in growing support for unionization among restaurant workers. He lost his job at the time, and he believes similar experiences gave the industry’s workers an understanding of their precarity. He saw that insecurity play out at Barboncino, and it’s what led him to get on board with the union effort, helping convince other members of the restaurant’s back-of-house staff to do the same.
“We had a coworker who was a father, who got fired on the spot because he voiced concerns about management and the way they were running things and that he felt he was getting overworked and not treated right,” explains Berrien of an incident that took place around five months ago. “Another guy was an ex-con who needed a job as a condition of his parole, and he was let go unceremoniously, too.”
Asked about those incidents, Walton wrote, “While Barboncino’s ownership disagrees with these characterizations, Barboncino does not discuss personnel issues publicly.”
The workers want clear disciplinary procedures, such as a three-strikes policy. Kitchens are notoriously intense workplaces, and it’s hard to imagine an environment more in need of a union shop steward that workers can turn to when they have problems on the job. At Barboncino, workers say that the current employee handbook mentions at-will employment a dozen times and that a mandatory arbitration clause has been added as of late that would prevent them from taking the restaurant to court.
Prioritizing protections against arbitrary termination helped win trust among Barboncino’s back-of-house staff, but building unity also required workers like Berrien to talk through his coworkers’ cynicism regarding the possibility of changing the establishment for the better.
“The difficulty with organizing cooks is that we can be used to abuse and adverse working conditions. That can become a sort of badge of honor that we wear as if it’s a cool, badass thing,” says Berrien. “There’s something to be said for that because it builds camaraderie, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve things.” He says that some of those who were most adamant that they weren’t interested in the organizing have since become the union’s most vocal members.
“On my very first day at Barboncino, I remember seeing around one hundred and fifty [order] tickets in the kitchen, and there was more delivery than I had ever seen in my entire life,” says Dinndorf, who has worked in the service industry for more than a decade. “I thought, ‘This isn’t a pizza restaurant, this is a pizza factory.’ This is industrial, very fast work: to work as a pizzaiolo here is incredibly hard. The most capable administrators in the country couldn’t work at Barboncino. The president of the United States couldn’t work a Barboncino line.”
When I tell Berrien about Dinndorf’s assertion regarding the president, he laughs in agreement. “It’s skilled labor.”
A “Subversion of What It Means to Go to Work”
The workers emphasize that their qualms are with the food-service industry writ large, rather than Barboncino specifically. In fact, they say that it is the pizzeria’s relatively decent working conditions that inspired them to organize.
“We have all worked jobs that were so much worse than Barboncino, and we’ve all had more abusive managers,” says Kemmett. “When speaking with people who have been through worse, we say that the reason we should organize Barboncino is because it’s a good place to work and it could be better. This could be a place where you have real stability.”
“Support for unionization within the industry is bubbling over; it’s volcanic,” adds Dinndorf. “But people are afraid of retaliation.”
It’s a reasonable fear. Starbucks is currently violating labor law at locations across the country, firing dozens of pro-union workers and closing profitable stores that have particularly strong unions. A restaurant owner could do the same. And these are high-turnover businesses, which adds to the difficulty of unionizing them; there’s a reason few unions have tried it before. Asked why pro-union sentiment exists among food-service workers given these obstacles, BWU members mention the inspiration they and their counterparts at other restaurants have taken from the Starbucks unionization drive, citing in particular the youth-led nature of that organizing.
“Organizations like EWOC and Workers United are radicalizing a generation of young people,” says Dinndorf. “This is the accumulation of people being radicalized by work. It’s the product of a lifetime of hard managers.” He recounts feeling near elation upon leaving the group’s first organizing-committee meeting. Says Dinndorf, “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m not at work, but I’m with my coworkers talking about all our problems with our jobs.’ It felt like a complete subversion of what it means to go to work.”
The workers also point out that recent shifts in the US economy have made low-wage service work a long-term job rather than the youthful gig many still view it as. The number of people working these jobs for decades rather than a year or two continues to grow, and with that comes a need to make the work more sustainable. Plus, there is the cost of rent. As housing prices continue to rise in New York, something has to give.
“People talk about our generation as being apathetic, but when we’re organizing, I don’t see any of that,” says Dinndorf. “A lot of people don’t know what a shop steward is, but once they do know about it, they want one. And Barboncino is the prototypical restaurant — if we can organize, any other nearby restaurant can too, and they’ll do it twice as quickly as we did.”
“This is the first thing I’ve ever done in the industry that has been fulfilling,” says Kemmett. “It makes me feel like I’m actually capable of improving things.” He laughs, adding, “I have a reputation for being a grumpy bartender, but these days, I’m pretty peachy at work.”
On Monday night, the owners weren’t on site, and the workers, wearing union buttons they’d made over the weekend, chatted with me and the patron seated next to me at the bar. She was friends with one of them and had stopped into the pizzeria to find out what it means for a restaurant to unionize; she hadn’t known such a thing was possible.
As I ate a cremini and fennel sausage pizza and discussed the ins and outs of union-button design with Kemmett, a soundtrack heavy on 2000s hits played over the restaurant’s speakers. BWU members sang along as they navigated behind the crowded bar. (When Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” abruptly stopped playing, a chorus of boos erupted from the staff.) Some of them had come from what they described as a very positive organizing meeting earlier in the day, and spirits were high. They say tips have been better than usual this week, and customers are writing supportive messages on their receipts. If this is what a unionized restaurant looks like, I’d guess the city’s workers are about to organize a few more of them.