Tudor’s Biscuit World site could become WV’s first unionized fast food restaurant
(UPDATE: January 25, 2022, 2:29 p.m.) On Tuesday, workers at Elkview Tudor’s Biscuit World voted not to become West Virginia’s first fast food union. Learn more here.
ELKVIEW, West Virginia (PA) — While baking cookies and meatloaf at a fast food restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic, Cynthia Nicholson, 64, often thinks back to her husband’s coal mining days in West Virginia.
In that job and when he was a pipefitter, she says, the work was grueling and sometimes dangerous – but there were standards for safety, working conditions and wages, and people felt they were treated fairly. She said it was because he belonged to unions.
At Tudor’s Biscuit World in Elkview, a franchise of a regional chain that serves comfort food, Nicholson says workers have no such protection. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, she does not feel safe.
So a few months ago, she did the only thing that made sense to her: she reached out to her late husband’s union friends and asked for help. On Tuesday, after months of organizing, National Labor Relations Board officials will tally the votes cast by some of the franchise’s roughly two dozen workers on whether it will become the state’s first unionized fast food restaurant. .
The push for a union in this mountain town of less than 2,000 people echoes a broader national movement to organize among retail and restaurant workers. At a company where workers are routinely asked to stay on the job and interact with the public during the pandemic, they hope forming a union will give them more say in how they are treated.
The effort also resonates deeply in a state with a long history of labor activism, 100 years later. the largest labor uprising in US history erupted in West Virginia coal country.
“We’re tired of being treated as badly as we’re treated,” Nicholson said. “Workers are treated without dignity, without respect, as if they were just a number.”
The vice president of Tudor’s Biscuit World did not respond to a voicemail or text message from The Associated Press, and no one from the chain’s headquarters responded to phone calls.
Relatively unknown outside of the region, Tudor’s Biscuit World is a West Virginia staple: a go-to eatery where diners can get homemade cookies drizzled with gravy; country steak and sandwiches including the Miner or the Mountaineer. Founded in Charleston in 1980, the chain now has more than 70 locations, mostly in West Virginia and parts of the neighboring states of Ohio and Kentucky.
In a way, the Elkview franchise, surrounded by hills and parked next to a Dairy Queen, is a far cry from the coal mines of West Virginia where men and women were once at the forefront of the American labor movement . In another, the connection is visceral.
Workers here feel connected to the state’s labor history in their bones, connected by blood to the men and women who saw the value of organizing for safer conditions and better pay in their own life. Unions have been significantly weakened over the years, but many West Virginians remember a father, husband or other relative who once held a union job, and they witnessed power to unite.
State employees have often turned to unionizing when concerns about workplace safety are heightened, notes West Virginia University historian William Hal Gorby.
“Workers in all sectors are saying, ‘We are living in a moment where this makes you ask yourself: do you want to do this particular job because you might get sick and/or die from it?’ “, did he declare. “At the start of the 20th century it was the coal mine and the lack of regulation and now it’s COVID.”
A century ago, concerns about safety and quality of life drew workers to Blair Mountain, where armed miners were subdued by government officials and at least 16 men died. It was a setback for the labor movement at the time, but union membership in the state peaked in the decades following the battle. In the 1940s and 1950s, about half of West Virginia workers were employed in heavy industries such as coal, steel, and glass, and the majority of these workers belonged to a union.
In 2021, however, only 10.5% of workers in West Virginia were represented by unions, according to US Department of Labor Statistics released last week.
Nicholson is a retired dental assistant who lives in Elkview. She started working at Tudor about a year ago, earning $9 an hour as a cook for extra income after her husband died of cancer.
She saw things that immediately worried her. After an employee tested positive for COVID-19, restaurant workers were never notified, she said. When one of her co-workers questioned the store’s COVID policy, Nicholson said, she began to see her hours reduced. Employees often had to work beyond their scheduled hours to cover shifts and then were reprimanded for working overtime, she said.
Nicholson also alleges that she and other employees were robbed of their paychecks and charged hundreds of dollars for work meals they never ate.
“The bashing that’s going on amazes me,” she said, adding that in her previous job as a dental assistant, “you weren’t allowed to act like that.”
Nicholson contacted one of the unions her husband had belonged to: Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 625, based in the capital city of Charleston. Union officials put her in touch with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents 35,000 workers in six states and Washington, DC.
When the majority of workers at Tudor’s Elkview franchise signed clearance cards, Nicholson said, there was a lot of excitement. They held rallies where people held signs saying, “We love union cookies.”
But soon the temperature changed. Employees began to fear losing their jobs or having their hours reduced. Nicholson said she was written for small things, something that had never happened before.
Former Tudor head cashier Jennifer Patton, 38, said she was afraid to join a union at first but felt more comfortable after talking to her beau -father, who was a trade unionist.
She signed up after discovering that an employee she was riding with to another Tudor location had tested positive for COVID-19 and she had not been informed.
Her decision had consequences: in the months that followed, she says, she was suspended several times despite having never been sanctioned before and had even been promoted. Her bosses then stripped her of her security clearance to work as a cashier. Last week she was fired.
Patton’s son just started his freshman year of college. She said paying for her son’s education was important to her.
“My husband and I work every day, as many hours as possible, and we are still struggling,” she said. “No one deserves to be talked to and treated like we are.”
Tudor employee Susie Thompson, 67, agrees.
“I wouldn’t do this job at my age unless I had to,” said Thompson, whose ex-husband belonged to a union as a surface miner. “It’s tough. Morale is so low.
Nicholson hopes enough workers feel the connection to the state’s past to tip the scales in favor of collective bargaining unity now.
“Unions have protected our family members, so many workers in the history of this state,” she said. “We need that protection at Tudor.”