In recent months, at least three workers at Ash’Kara, a Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Boulder, had been organizing to form a union, in part to demand transparency over how its “fair wage fee” is distributed among workers. In late December, about a dozen workers and supporters bundled up in winter garb to protest outside the restaurant on 1043 Pearl Street, chanting support for the union and blasting their message across social media.
The effort followed recent successful union campaigns in coffee shops and restaurants across the county. In December 2021, workers at Spruce Confections, a Boulder bakery, voted to form a union. About a year later, baristas at Brewing Market Coffee followed suit, after voicing grievances over how their tips were being distributed.
But on Jan. 18, about a month after Ash’Kara organizers filed a petition to hold an election to form a union, they withdrew it. The decision ended the effort without a vote.
The group of organizers, some of whom no longer work at Ash’Kara, said they didn’t have the support needed to win the election. To form a union, they would need to earn a majority of support among those voting.
David McGuire, 33, a server who said he started working at Ash’Kara when the restaurant first opened in April 2021, said he helped hand out union cards to his coworkers and attended meetings with representatives from Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO. He said about 20 of the restaurant’s approximately 30 workers had signed authorization cards.
But some people who were supporting the union left for other jobs, he said. Others were put off by the months it would take to hammer out a contact. McGuire and two other workers said managers at Ash’Kara stopped giving them work shifts after they started organizing, making it even more difficult to gather support.
“There was always an enthusiasm gap,” McGuire said of workers willing to organize. “You have to be well enough off to be able to do that, to be able to risk your job, or your conditions have to be bad enough that you don’t think you have a choice.”
The workers behind the unionization push at Ash’Kara were seeking more transparency around the company’s “fair wage fee,” a 20% charge on customer’s bills that, according to the restaurant’s website, aims to “reliably and equitably compensate everyone.” Such charges, which are becoming more common in Boulder restaurants, are viewed as a potential alternative to tipping. Revenue from the fee is typically pooled and split between front- and back-of-house workers.
Several workers interviewed for this story said they weren’t seeing the benefits of the fee and had unanswered questions about how it was being spent. According to a Dec. 9 letter seeking voluntary recognition of a union, the workers sought to “end management hoarding [of the fee revenue]” and called for its “equal distribution to all Ash’Kara employees.” The letter also sought pay increases “commensurate with inflation,” “reasonable” staffing levels and health benefits.
The restaurant industry has rebounded from the pandemic-induced recession more slowly than other industries in the City of Boulder, according to city sales tax data. How this broader trend has affected Ash’Kara is unclear. The restaurant’s co-owners, Josh Dinar and Daniel Asher, did not return multiple requests for comment by phone and email.
In a Dec. 29 Boulder Weekly story, Dinar told a columnist his staff members should have the opportunity to vote on whether to form a union.
“This is the best way to ensure that each employee has a voice,” he said. “If the union wins the election, we will work with the union in good faith. We cannot comment on personnel decisions, but we schedule our employees based on business needs, and business has been slow in recent months.”
Unfair labor practices complaint
The workers behind the union effort at Ash’Kara had national momentum on their side. On Jan. 24, workers at the Starbucks on 2400 Baseline Road voted 13-2 to form a union, according to the organizers, Starbucks Workers United of Colorado.
The store joined a growing number of coffee shops across the nation where workers have banded together to seek higher wages, control over schedules and better sick leave benefits, among other requests. The movement, buoyed by the successful union petition in 2021 at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, has since ignited a surge in union organizing at other food and drink establishments across the county, according to a recent analysis by NPR.
At least three Ash’Kara workers said they had their hours slashed and were locked out of the restaurant’s scheduling software program after they started talking about forming a union. Two workers said their access to the scheduling software has since been reinstated. They said they were given the opportunity to pick up limited shifts, but are no longer working at Ash’Kara.
Late last year, workers filed a petition to hold a vote on Jan. 20 at the restaurant. In December, they held protests to try to drum up support. During one of those rallies, on Dec. 15, police records indicate Dinar called the Boulder Police Department, referring to the rally as a “union protest” of about 10 people and alleging they were “blocking the entrance” and causing a “disturbance.” No arrests were made.
The workers who said they had their hours cut have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging retaliation and other unfair labor practices under federal law. Depending on the outcome of the case, the board could require Ash’Kara to back pay the workers for lost wages.
Such allegations are difficult to prove, according to Robert Lindgren, a political and organizing director with the Colorado AFL-CIO, the union supporting workers at Ash’Kara. “If they can prove it’s an illegal firing, the remedies are more financial than something that would build lasting power,” he said.
The restaurant is owned by the Working Title Food Group, which also owns River and Woods, a restaurant serving farm-to-table Colorado comfort food. The co-owners, Dinar and Asher, have received public recognition for their role in the community and advocacy for organic agriculture and local food. Ash’Kara opened in April 2021, one year into the Covid-19 pandemic. In the summer of 2022, they sought to expand their outdoor dining at a time when other restaurant owners wanted the return of car parking on West Pearl.
“We believe that Ash’Kara is a great place to work — a place where we can work hard, enjoy our time at work, and make a living while giving great customer service,” states the letter seeking voluntary recognition of the union.
McGuire said he is stringing together jobs in writing and acting while working at a restaurant in Denver. He remains concerned about his and others’ ability to earn a living wage working in restaurants.
“Restaurant workers across America are underpaid and certainly deserve to be treated better,” he said. “And if you can’t run a restaurant that is profitable, and also be able to pay your employees well enough that they can survive, then you shouldn’t run a restaurant.”
Jessica Mordacq contributed reporting for this story.