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Pandemic ‘Spurs ‘Nashville Restaurant Workers ‘To Organize’

Published Sunday, September 27, 2020
by Will Blumen/
Pandemic ‘Spurs ‘Nashville Restaurant Workers ‘To Organize’

(NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE) - Restaurant Workers in Nashville are experimenting with new forms of organizing in response to years of management abuse and the new threat of COVID-19.

In early March, just as the pandemic was looming on the horizon, but before any government-mandated shutdowns, a Chef in the city’s rapidly growing restaurant industry started a Facebook Page called: Nashville Hospitality Union.

Soon, more than 1,000 Restaurant Workers had joined the page.

Most of the workers involved said that they had experienced serious issues in the industry before, from sexual harassment to inhumane last-minute scheduling, but they saw COVID-19 as a new and urgent threat.

Some were worried restaurants would cut corners on sanitizing, distancing, and case reporting.

Others worried that closures or a decrease in business would put them out of a job.

But as one Worker at Von Elrod’s in downtown Nashville told, whatever the specific concern: “It ‘didn’t take a rocket scientist to see who was going to get the short end of the COVID stick.’”

One of those who joined the page was Brenda Waybrant, a former server at Wild Horse Saloon, who had left the restaurant two weeks before the state-mandated shutdown out of fear for her health.

As she told “There was ‘just a creepy vibe’ in the restaurant.  I left after we had a customer from Seattle.  ‘I asked a manager if we would get paid if we got sick or the restaurant had to shut down and he just laughed at me.’  ‘I only had enough money to survive for three weeks, but business had already slowed down so I’d lost tip money and it wasn’t worth it to risk my health.’”

After commenting on a discussion on the Facebook Page about the benefits of Unions, Waybrant connected with another Restaurant Worker who wanted to discuss organizing in the industry more seriously.

They talked on the phone and the conversation moved her from curious to committed.

“He ‘listened more than he talked,’” Waybrant said. “He ‘asked me what I wanted to see changed, and talked me through how collective action could solve it.’  ‘I realized it was time for me to step outside of my comfort zone.’”

A core group of seven or eight connected through the Facebook Page this way and began meeting on Zoom every day after the restaurants in the city were shut down.

While they continued to talk with others in the industry on Social Media and through their personal networks, they also began to debate the best structure for what they were trying to build.

Some had a background in or knowledge of the Labor Movement, but many did not.

Anne Barnett from the Nashville Central Labor Council got pulled in to provide critical support and guidance.

Several of the Workers in this core group wanted to start with a traditional Union structure and a traditional Organizing Drive, either industry-wide or within restaurants with pressing issues and clusters of Union Supporters.

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