Earlier this month, workers at local pizzeria Via 313 rallied at their north campus location to protest retaliatory suspensions against workers organizing for paid sick leave and job safety. Those workers have since been reinstated, in a major win for worker organizing in Austin—now the fight for a safe workplace continues.
By Joshua F
A hundred Via 313 Pizzeria workers and supporters demonstrated January 8 outside the chain’s north campus location on Guadalupe across from Wheatsville Food Co-op. Protesting management’s January 6 suspension of four workers after they submitted a petition demanding paid sick leave and notification of workplace COVID exposure, the crowd listened to speeches by workers and chanted, “We make the dough, we have the power!”
Though management failed to respond formally to the protest, they clearly felt the pressure. They ended the suspension January 11 and agreed to pay back pay for the lost time. (One worker who quit after being suspended was told by local management they could return but Savory Fund, Via 313’s parent company, interceded, refusing to let them back.) Since management had snidely told workers the demonstration wouldn’t attract more than ten or fifteen people, they were clearly surprised at the showing of support.
Via employee, Elyanna Calle, was pleased with their return, but noted, “All they [management -ed.] have done is fix their mistake. They haven’t improved anything.” She explained, “After Christmas, a lot of workers started getting COVID,” worsening a pre-existing staff shortage. “We don’t have any financial support for the new Omicron wave. They say they have a system in place to notify employees but it’s not enforced. We were working with people who had COVID but we weren’t told.” The workers’ original statement noted that 15 coworkers had been diagnosed with COVID in the previous two weeks.
Another Via 313 employee, Lucy (not her real name) explained that they had previously brought up paid sick days, but management brushed them off and refused to meet. After getting pressure from Delta Airlines and other corporations, the CDC changed the recommendation of COVID isolation from ten days to five plus five more of masking. Via management began texting sick people after five days, pushing them to return to work.
Lucy related that when management called to pressure sick people to return to work, several asked if they could receive sick pay and were told no. “We realized we needed to show up in a group to show we were serious about the issue. The company claims they don’t force us to work when we’re sick, but they know we can’t afford not to without sick pay.” So, employees began circulating a petition among their coworkers. In a short time, they got 46 signatures.
“A group of seven went to the Oak Hill location to talk to the Vice President of Operations to deliver the petition. We behaved in a respectful manner, but it was tense and she wasn’t happy: she was taken by surprise. That day, we also emailed the higher-ups the petition through an email address we created.”
The VP refused to speak with them, said she was feeling attacked, and didn’t want to meet with seven people. This was despite those seven wearing masks and company practice that permits seating parties of 20 customers without masks.
This level of disrespect led to a decision to flyer their coworkers Friday, January 9 at all five locations in Austin (three restaurants plus two trailers) and demonstrate Saturday.
Rather than communicating with the workforce, management responded by suspending four of the seven member delegation, claiming they created a “hostile work environment.” They also had their lawyers send a “cease and desist” letter because the email address the workers created had “via313” in it. Presumably from a desire to minimize their attack on the workforce, in management’s official PR release, they claimed they suspended three of eight people who presented the petition. According to the workers, the actual numbers were four and seven. In any case, management flatly refused to consider sick pay.
They also claimed the workers were demanding the company violate federal law because a minor point in the petition could be read to request any COVID positive names be revealed. Curiously, the company’s concern with violating federal law seems to begin and end with healthcare privacy. It certainly doesn’t extend to federal labor law, which forbids punishing workers for collectively demanding better jobs. Calle has also heard from coworkers that management is questioning them about what they think of the collective action, also forbidden under federal law.
This isn’t the first struggle Via 313 workers have waged.
“We recently switched to a new clock-in tool and they wanted us to clock in with facial ID. We created a petition to not use facial recognition and just use a code to clock in. They very quickly agreed,” said Calle. “That was easier though: sick pay threatens their profits.” But she does feel the previous win helped make them ready to wage the current battle.
From Detroit to Austin to Utah
Via 313 offers “Detroit-style pizza”, which seems to mean square or rectangular instead of round. According to their website, it was founded in Austin in 2011 by two brothers from a “hard-working, blue-collar area of Detroit”. This claimed working-class background clearly hasn’t led to much appreciation for those who work for them. They apparently think it’s fine to punish people for doing what Detroiters have always done best: organizing to improve their jobs.
Despite their claimed tie to Detroit, the previously local Austin chain sold itself in 2020 to the Savory Fund. The fund is a Utah-based restaurant investment group. At this point, Via 313 is no more connected to Detroit than it is to a rich suburb of Motor City or a rich suburb of Salt Lake City. It’s just another set of bosses enriching themselves at the expense of the health and safety of the employees who do the actual work.
If they don’t drop the corporate hard line though, they may learn that the auto companies didn’t build Detroit: the workers did. No Chevys or Fords are built without UAW members and you can’t make pizzas without workers, either.
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