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The Fight to Unionize Restaurants Heads to the New York Pizzeria

Employees of Barboncino, a pizza shop in Crown Heights, filed for a union election earlier this month

Three people, one in pink, another in a hat, and a third in a beanie, pass in front of a restaurant, Barboncino in Crown Heights.
Employees of Barboncino in Crown Heights will seek to unionize.
Luke Fortney/Eater NY

The wave of restaurant union organizing sweeping across the country has landed on the front steps of the New York pizzeria.

Employees of Barboncino Pizza, a wood-fired pizzeria with a single location in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, filed for a union election earlier this month, one of the first steps toward unionizing. If successful, the restaurant would become the only unionized pizzeria in New York City at present. Jacobin first reported news of the election.

“Service industry workers are not treated with the respect that we believe they deserve,” says Andrea Lopez, a member of Barboncino Workers United who has worked as a server and bartender at the pizzeria for four years. “What we are doing is not about Barboncino specifically as much as it is about the restaurant industry itself.”

The employees are organizing with Workers United, the national labor union driving a wave of organizing at Starbucks stores across the country. As workers in the hospitality industry spoke out about exploitation and low pay during the pandemic, the labor union stepped in to help them advocate for better conditions. It represents some 7,000 workers in New York and New Jersey, according to its website.

Barboncino is one of the first restaurants in the city to organize with Workers United, although employees at other establishments have unionized through other groups. Workers at restaurants like Gallaghers steakhouse and Shun Lee Palace are represented by Unite Here Local 100, formed in 2004. Other attempts to organize include the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers, which counted more than 1,000 members at its peak.

Barboncino Workers United filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this month. The group’s leaders asked the restaurant’s co-owners Jesse Shapell and Emma Walton to recognize the union by Friday, May 26, which would have allowed the group to sidestep a vote. That deadline passed, and employees will now seek to formalize the union through a ballot election with the National Labor Relations Board.

In an email to Eater, Shapell said the restaurant is aware that some of its employees intend to unionize. “Barboncino will continue, as always, to support its customers, community, and employees,” he said.

Shapell and Walton took over the Crown Heights pizzeria from its founder, Ron Brown, last fall. Shortly after becoming owners, employees approached the couple with a petition requesting a team meeting. Workers wanted input on the restaurant’s employee handbook, specifically around sexual harassment complaints; a three-strike policy that would prevent employees from being fired without cause; and increases to its minimum wages for tipped employees and kitchen staff. The requests were denied, employees say.

“Barboncino offers competitive hourly wages in line with minimum wage requirements and current industry wage standards,” Shapell said. “Our handbook includes a progressive discipline policy, as well as additional language providing greater employee protection to prevent harassment of staff by guests.” The restaurant offers 401(k) plans to workers who have been employed for at least six months, according to employees.

Barboncino employs roughly 40 non-management workers, and Barboncino Workers United claims to have enough support on staff to unionize in the event of an election. “We’re feeling very optimistic,” says Susannah Resnikoff, a server and bartender who has worked at Barboncino for three years.

The pizzeria is the latest in a series of New York restaurants whose employees have organized to obtain better working conditions or protect those already in place. It started with international chains like Starbucks, whose first stores to unionize were in upstate New York. Since then, employees at neighborhood queer bars and Rockefeller Center restaurants have filed for union elections.

At Barboncino, employees say the pizzeria’s “decent working conditions” encouraged them to take the first steps to unionize. “Barboncino is a place where people stay for a long time,” says Resnikoff. “Even at one of the best places to work, these things can happen to you and you’re in this very precarious position.”

Update: June 1, 2023, 10:24 a.m.: This article was updated to include additional comments from Barboncino co-owner Jesse Shapell.