Union Kitchen workers are calling for a boycott of the food startup accelerator’s six DC-area retail stores in an escalating battle with the owners over their unionization efforts. Employees voted to unionize in June of 2022, citing an end to tipping, insufficient paid sick leave, and understaffing. But they allege their attempts to organize have been met with retaliation, including illegal firings and withheld pay. Workers have filed a slew of complaints against the company’s management with the National Labor Relations Board, and a settlement with the agency earlier this year required Union Kitchen to pay $25,000 to five fired workers who reportedly faced discipline for their involvement in the union effort. More recently, one former employee and the labor group representing Union Kitchen’s union filed an additional wage theft lawsuit against the business.
Union Kitchen CEO Cullen Gilchrist declined to comment on the record for this story and has not responded to multiple follow-up requests. In previous interviews with DCist, he has denied union busting. “We will never intimidate, threaten, or make promises to fight a union. We want the will of the majority of Union Kitchen staff to be heard, and will continue to work to ensure we cultivate a positive culture,” told the media outlet in February 2022.
Union members and volunteers from other local organizations will stand outside all store locations during the boycott, asking local residents to stop shopping until they reach an agreement. The shops—which sell groceries, made-in-store food, and other local products—serve as launching pads for up-and-coming DC-area food businesses to develop products and gauge customer interest. Union Kitchen advertises startups like frozen pie company Eat Pizza and vegan pork-rind alternate Snacklins among its success stories. Union representatives say they are not aiming to boycott the products themselves, just Union Kitchen’s retail outlets. “If we had a boycott at Safeway, we wouldn’t be boycotting Coca-Cola just because they sell Coca-Cola,” says Jonathan Williams, a spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, which represents the union.
The workers sent a letter (cosigned by various organizations, including local service employee unions) to Gilchrist in May, threatening a boycott if the management didn’t “cease hostilities” with the union and meet with them to negotiate a contract. Williams says the two parties plan to meet a few times over the next month to negotiate, and if a contract is reached, the boycott will end.
Gabriel Wittes, the former Union Kitchen employee suing over allegations that he was fired in retaliation for his union participation, is among those picketing the businesses. “We’ve been here trying to have a dialogue with them for 14 months, so this is kind of the culmination of a lot of work, and it will continue, and it will not end until the work is done,” says Wittes, who now works for Local 400.
The boycott of Union Kitchen follows a recent protest of the InterContinental Hotel at the Wharf, following the the closure of its acclaimed modern Vietnamese restaurant Moon Rabbit amid a unionization effort. The hotel has since recognized its employees’ union, DCist reports, but the waterfront restaurant remains closed, with chef Kevin Tien reportedly looking for another location.