Queer Workers Form City-Wide Direct-Join Labor Union: First of its Kind in Louisville

By Benjamin Berry

In late October 2022, after months of organizing, the two dozen workers at local pizzeria, Pizza Lupo, notified management of their intention to unionize as members of the Louisville chapter of Restaurant Workers United (RWU). A young union founded at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, RWU uses a direct-join model through which all “restaurant and food service workers… are eligible for membership” including those “who are temporarily unemployed or were formerly employed in these industries.”1 Dedicated to the advancement of “the economic, social, and political interests of its members, their dependents, unorganized workers in its jurisdiction, customers, and the working class as a whole,”1 RWU is firmly committed to bottom-up organization and decision-making: a labor union designed to be democratically run by the workers themselves, not by distant labor leaders or a bureaucratic organization of trade unions.

Gary Inman, a local organizer with RWU, who has worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade, cited RWU’s commitment to rank-and-file leadership and organizing as the draw for him and the workers at Pizza Lupo. RWU views each worker as an organizer and relies on worker-to-worker communication for its strength and growth. Instead of depending on “professional, credentialed” organizers, the RWU provides resources and support to its members who lead the organizing of their own union campaigns. This is how it should be, Inman emphasized, “It’s important to recognize the different conditions and grievances in each workplace and the workers themselves are best suited to organize an effective campaign around those issues.”

From Heine Brothers and Sunergos Coffee to Trader Joe’s and Half Price Books, working people cite the Covid-19 pandemic as the catalyst for this new wave of organized labor. Highlighting the gross exploitation and the difficult conditions of their jobs, the pandemic offered the opportunity for workers to reassess their place in their industries and to begin the drive for better working conditions, higher pay, and a democratic voice in their workplaces. “Workers have leverage now, much more than in recent years, and employers can’t afford to lose you, especially in the restaurant industry.” Inman remarks.

Younger people in Louisville may be surprised to discover that this modern wave of organized labor is not new to our city, but is actually a continuation of the city’s history of radical union activity. 

Seventy years ago, located off Crittenden Drive, now part of the runway system for the Louisville International Airport, was situated the International Harvester plant. International Harvester, once a monopoly in the farming equipment industry, had its founding in Chicago under the family name, McCormick Works. A police attack on striking workers outside McCormick Works in May 1886 prompted a demonstration the next evening; it was at this Haymarket Square rally that the infamous “riots” occurred, a watershed moment in labor history. 

Decades later, the McCormick family opened a new factory here in Louisville, attempting to escape the labor-friendly North. This move did not accomplish what the McCormick’s were hoping; within a short time, a small but militant union called the United Farm Equipment Workers of America (FE) organized the Louisville plant. The FE was instrumental in the earliest civil rights struggles in our city, uniting Black and white workers on the picket lines and in the union hall. Friendships based on solidarity were formed between rank-and-file members. In this way, the little-known union helped loosen the hold of racial hostility in Louisville.2 

Today, RWU continues the legacy of class struggle unions like the FE, now reaching and uniting an even wider array of people. Their Constitution declares Restaurant Workers United aims to “unite all workers within the restaurant industry, regardless of race, religion, creed, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, marital status, sexual preference or orientation, gender identification, or citizenship status.”1 The Louisville chapter of RWU and the workers at Pizza Lupo are certainly no exception to this mission.

“LGBTQ people populate the restaurant industry” said Inman, who uses he/they pronouns and identifies as queer. “It’s easy for local restaurants to brag about their place in the community and their supposed-progressiveness. But we need to make sure our full-time jobs can provide a living.” This is why the Louisville chapter of RWU is organizing independent restaurants in the area. It is not enough to paint the store in rainbows for Pride Month or to hang a BLM flag on the window. Workers need bargaining power, and that is what the RWU fights for. 

Lauren Thomas, a server at Pizza Lupo since August 2022, says of the restaurant: “This is a really good place to work. We unionized because we’re invested and we care and we want to work together to make it even better.” Inman agrees: “No one’s unionizing because they hate their jobs. We love our jobs. We just want to be taken care of for the work we’re putting in. We want a safe culture where our voices are heard and where we’re truly contributing to the community by being a more sustainable business.” he says. Thomas, who had no prior experience with unions or organizing, has worked in the restaurant industry for the past fifteen years. She also cites the pandemic as the spark for her looking to organize within the industry.

On October 31, 2022, the owners and management of Pizza Lupo responded to their workers’ request by officially and voluntarily recognizing the union, setting them apart from Sunergos, Heine Brothers’, and other local businesses who chose to fight their workers’ union efforts.

Not only did Inman, Thomas, and their coworkers win voluntary recognition—which any worker who has participated in unionizing efforts knows is no small feat—they also made history as the first independent restaurant union in the city; this accomplishment is especially impressive, because the workers at Pizza Lupo struggled for and won their victory without the financial backing of a larger trade union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S. RWU and their praises on Instagram: “Our fellow workers at Pizza Lupo have won voluntary recognition from management for their union; over the last few months they have worked tirelessly to build consciousness amongst their fellow workers, reach a pro-union majority, and collectively decide ways to make Lupo a better place to work… We want to recognize the workers of Pizza Lupo for their hard work, determination, solidarity, and belief in one another.”3

Currently, the workers of Pizza Lupo are looking forward to negotiating a contract with management. Consistent scheduling, higher pay—specifically for the back of house—and better benefits are among the workers’ demands. 

Meanwhile, RWU is continuing to build power among working people, in Louisville and across the U.S., and Inman and Thomas are proud to be a part of the struggle. 

August Spies, a union organizer convicted and executed for this role in the Haymarket riot, described the labor movement as a “subterranean fire.” That fire has been reignited and its flames are being fanned, not by politicians or bureaucratic corporate union executives, but by militant rank-and-file workers. “We’re stronger together.” Thomas says. “I hope this creates momentum in the industry so that other workers can start organizing their workplaces, too.”

  1. Restaurant Workers United Constitution https://drive.google.com/file/d/18jv4F9bs2rH_YUJ99J9swaMwEiSSZKQr/view
  2. For more information on McCormick Works, International Harvester, and the United Farm Equipment Workers of America, I suggest reading Toni Gilpin’s excellent book, The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland, published by Haymarket Books in 2020.

Restaurant Workers United Instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/CkZVKwcvx3w/

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