An Interview with Flynn Nicholls of Donut Friend United about his experience organizing at his work.
Flynn Nicholls is a member of ROP and DSA who organized a union campaign at his place of work, Donut Friend, a vegan donut shop with two locations in Los Angeles. His and his coworkers efforts led to demands for better safety and hazard pay during COVID. He was fired before the campaign went public. However, a viral tweet alleging that the firing was retaliatory threw the campaign into the local media spotlight. The campaign for union recognition at Donut Friend is ongoing.
Sky: I understand you were organizing behind the scenes at Donut Friend in LA for over a year but the campaign had to go public very suddenly after a tweet calling out your firing went viral. How did that public wave of attention affect your campaign?
Flynn: Because it was so fast, we hadn’t gotten together what our messaging was. Figuring out how to put everything into a timeline that’s easy for somebody to understand, was work in and of itself.
But we hadn’t done that yet because stuff had blown up immediately. So reporters are asking us all these questions and we’re not prepared. We’re just trying to give them the best answers we can. I don’t think I slept at all and I had this interview to do at 10 in the morning. I was just completely delirious. So that didn’t help either.
Sky: And how did you get into organizing your shop in the first place?
Flynn: I’ve worked a lot of service jobs and they all sucked. I’m from Baltimore originally. I moved out to LA for work in the animation industry. But like a lot of people who are trying to work an entertainment job, you end up working in food service. I was like “I shouldn’t be invested in this job cause it’s just, like, the placeholder job.”
I think that’s the attitude a lot of people have when they’re working in food service. It’s not for a career, it’s just until I get the thing that I’m looking for. You don’t identify yourself as a food service worker.
When people asked me what I did for a living, I’d say, “I do freelance stuff.” I never told people I worked in service. But at a certain point I’m like, no, I do work in food service. And I think that really changed a lot about how I felt about the job. I started to think “I shouldn’t be spending all my time here and I shouldn’t get treated like shit by my boss.”
Sky: What caused that shift?
Flynn: It kind of went in starts. I worked at Starbucks for three and a half years and prior to that, I worked at a call center. Honestly, I think the call center radicalized me pretty quickly.
It was for a credit card company. It was a lot of: “I’m in debt and I’m trying to talk to people who are also in debt because it’s companies putting them in debt.” And I realized: “Oh, I’m not here to help anybody. I’m here to cover this company’s ass.”
So I quit. I didn’t do anything like organizing there. I knew what a union was, but I didn’t know anything about how to go about starting one. I think I did do a Google search on call center unions before I left but that was all.
Then I started working at Starbucks. During that time, it kind of reoccurred to me like, “Oh yeah, maybe I could do something here.” I mean, Starbucks is really swinging for the fences as far as organizing goes, but it got me thinking about unions again.
I mean, I didn’t say the union word to my coworkers but I was like, “Hey, do you feel like we get paid enough at this job?” And they’re like, “I don’t think we do.” I remember hanging out with a couple of my coworkers outside of work. And one of them was like, “yeah, I think we need a union actually.”
That was kind of my first real attempt. I got in touch with somebody from the Industrial Workers of the World, just because I remembered I’d once seen that at some point in the early 2000s, the IWW had organized some Starbucks stores somewhere. I did get ratted out, in the end. Someone must’ve told the manager. I got pulled into the back one day and they’re, like, “Flynn, you’re bad at your job. If you don’t improve within the next two weeks we’re gonna fire you.” So, that seemed pretty suspicious. It was towards end of year reviews, but those aren’t normally like, “we’re going to fire you.” Those are like, “we’re just telling you how good you’re doing.”
I didn’t really have any proof either way that that was what was happening. But then the next week I was on my break and my manager came in and said, “So I heard you had some concerns about pay.” She kind of gave it away, this was them retaliating against me. She gave me this speech about what unions were for and who should and shouldn’t have a union.
I never said the word “union” out loud to a soul there. But she kind of sniffed it out. I quit eventually. Then I got hired at Donut Friend. And it’s in the back of my head where I’m like, “eh, maybe I’ll try it again here. Who knows?” It’s entirely a matter of if other people feel like they want to do it. And then it turned out that was the case. So here we are.
Sky: And were they all on board quickly or was there reluctance or a worry you’d get ratted out again?
Flynn: I actually didn’t get a ton of pushback. I’m somewhat lucky in that the place where I was working, it’s a punk donut store. Which is branding but, at the same time, the people who work there tend to be younger, progressive minded people. Overwhelmingly pro Bernie.
So, it wasn’t a stretch, with the exception of a couple of people, to say, “look these are the things that you personally believe in, and you can take action on those things in your workplace. The place that is right in front of you, the place that you spend most of your waking hours.” You have an opportunity to change your conditions for the better. Generally, that was a pretty easy conversation to have.
We had a couple of people who were a little afraid. And afraid for good reason, right? Our boss in particular had a history of retaliating against people for less. So people feel like, “I don’t know what this guy’s going to do.” Well, that is the reason we need a union! That alone. The fact that your boss can do whatever the fuck he wants and it negatively impacts you and you have no recourse.
You need protection from a guy who has zero accountability and can end your source of income.
I had to acknowledge that fear in people. I had that fear too, right?
But you’ve got to talk through that fear. And just acknowledge, it’s real and it’s taking a risk, but that they could do something really cool that’s going to benefit them and everybody they work with.
With an organized labor force, it doesn’t matter if the boss is going to retaliate against you because you can all come together and be like, “Stop, don’t do that.” I talked to people a lot at this point. You gotta walk them through. You gotta meet them where they’re at. It’s worth it.
Sky: And you feel like you reached your coworkers and were able to organize effectively together?
Flynn: Yeah, I had a coworker who got suspended just before I was fired. But she would have gotten fired too had it not been for another coworker who, when she was called into the office, demanded to go with her. That person went into that meeting with her and said, “if you fire her I’m walking.” So they didn’t fire her. Obviously, suspension for that situation was still illegal, but she at least was able to come back to work.
Another thing was, we did a letter of demands as a group action, before the campaign had gone public at the beginning of COVID. One of the demands was asking for hazard pay. A back-of-house person suggested it but they suggested it only for the front of house. Even though back of house had lost more wages because there weren’t any more overnight shifts. They said, “hazard pay at least for front of house.” And I was like, “No, we’re doing hazard pay for everybody. Everybody deserves hazard pay right now.”
Sky: How do you think things are developing? Do you think there’s going to be more of this kind of organizing in LA going forward?
Flynn: I do think more of it’s got to happen. Honestly, that the American Beauty action was inspired by Donut Friend, is really huge for me. And while we were doing stuff Tartine unionized. And Augie’s. All these other places. That Donut Friend already led to another action at another restaurant is amazing, and American Beauty is also going to influence somebody else to do the same thing. So I do think there is going to be more of it in LA. Because somebody is going to see it and be like,” Oh, I could do that.”
An Interview with Sam Sachs, server at American Beauty, who organized a picket against reduced wages.
Sam Sachs works as a server at American Beauty in Venice, CA. When the restaurant was supposed to reopen it’s dining room in March, rather than give raises to the BOH staff after multiple pay cuts during the pandemic, they would instead be changing the tip pool and effectively reducing the take home pay of FOH. The serving team staged a walkout which attracted public attention via TikTok. Soon after, Sam led a picket of the restaurant to demand restoring the previous tip distribution and a corresponding raise for BOH.
Sky: Your picket action at American Beauty —, which I attended, for full disclosure — happened as a result of management changing tip pooling and not telling anyone until the night the restaurant reopened its dining room. There wasn’t any existing campaign, the serving staff just walked out before service. Do you feel like that affected the outcome?
Sam: We did reach out to media but we didn’t actually expect to be doing any. So we had a lot of difficulties getting across a storyline and condensing things to be easy to understand. We thought, if we were lucky, maybe after a demonstration, we’d get there. But we had no anticipation that we’d get responses. So we didn’t have a party line or anything like that. We barely had asks either. Frankly, we just wanted to mount pressure and try to get the restaurant to negotiate.
Sky: A lot of that initial interest came after one of your coworkers posted a TikTok that went viral. How do you see the role of social media in your organizing?
For us at least, social media is a way to pitch to workers who haven’t quite been convinced in our shop. And as a way to exert outside pressure. At the very least we tanked their Yelp ratings, which isn’t anything but a show of where I think public sympathies are. People are understanding of people, not of corporations.
Sky: I was wondering if we could get a little of your backstory.
Sam: Yeah. Specifically, how I got to the action at American Beauty has to do with seeing the coverage of Donut Friend, and Colectivo, and Burgerville and so many of these other places that have successfully or inclusively done the “union thing” in the food service sector. A sector that time and time again, especially here in Los Angeles, is not seen as a career. It’s a job you’re not supposed to be able to survive having just one of them. It’s just taken for granted that you need at least two, if you’re in the back of house, to live in this city.
It seemed like there was this glimpse, a break in that structure, with these successful organizing attempts. And the specific crisis of Coronavirus gave us more leverage in some regard with the extended unemployment benefits. There were weeks during the pandemic where I was making less money working part time and foregoing some of my unemployment benefits. And I think some of my coworkers were realizing the same thing.
You get a taste of that dignity not having to fight for every crumb. As we were coming back into the restaurant reopening, where I had been, for the year leading up to now, talking under my breath about a union to my coworkers and would get chuckles here and there, “crazy commie” comments. But now, people were like “we’re ready to talk.” Both, I think, because they felt, finally there was some semblance of a safety net. And because it became so obvious the increased risks we were taking, because of the virus, that what was going on wasn’t right.
The status quo can’t exist unless we on some level accept it. If people like us don’t go into work, there is no food service. The bosses can’t run this shop. That’s always been true but I feel like COVID jolted the class consciousness of a lot of people. That was a big accelerant to collective action at our workplace. Having the reality exposed and everything being amped up to 11.
Biographically, I was born and raised here in Los Angeles. I think that’s kind of rare for LA food people. And I see it as my career. I’m a [college] dropout, but before I was studying public health through the lens of food justice.
Part of that justice is labor justice in the systems that supply food. That’s at the restaurant and that’s at the farm and that’s everywhere else. I’ve come into restaurant organizing as an extension of that.
Justice needs to be present in every step of that chain. If there’s no worker power in the food service part of the food chain, it makes it that much harder to have worker power in the food production part.
Sky: In terms of talking “under your breath” about a union, can you say more about how your fellow workers shifted on that over time. That seems to be a national phenomenon as well. Union favorability is at an all-time high. But at the same time union density is at an all time low. How do you think that plays into your specific circumstances?
Sam: I think that statistic about union density is true in a long-term sense, but what’s also true is that right now, today, union density is higher than it has been in some time. There are less union jobs, but jobs have contracted elsewhere [due to COVID] so much quicker than they have in fields that have unionized. To me, that’s the best argument for a union. I don’t think any of us need convincing, but I think other people are seeing that too, right?
Teachers were able to get all of these measures instituted to ensure their safety before they entered back into the workplace. Especially in working class communities that use the school system for so much more than just education. We didn’t see poor working families complaining about bratty union teachers who didn’t want to go to work. What we saw was rich Beverly Hills families complaining about that. And I think that goes to show that those working families know what it’s like to be a working person. To feel powerless and undignified in relation to decisions that go on at your workplace.
For the most part, I think the “union” word” is one thing, but everybody knows that they deserve to be treated better. And it’s just connecting the dots that the union is the vehicle for that to happen.
This is like the third restaurant I’ve tried some semblance of unionizing. By far, this was the least resistance I received. To be clear, there’s no union at the restaurant, so it hasn’t been a success by that metric, but it’s been the least questioning about why such a thing was necessary. Because I think we’re seeing why such a thing is necessary.
Sky: Your action was conducted entirely by front-of-house folks. But your most immediate demand was a raise for back of house. Why wasn’t back of house represented at the picket?
Sam: I think it’s tough, connecting those two areas. That’s where the action that took place at American Beauty had its weakest point. I know someone in BOH, he’s right with us in terms of thinking the same things. But also there’s a different assessment of risk. There are material factors that necessitate that. I think what’s absolutely true in restaurants specifically in a city like Los Angeles is that the front of house has one hue and language. And the back of house is a different group. There’s a different language that’s predominantly spoken BOH. People working in kitchens are either immigrant or first generation predominantly
And the disproportionate representation in front of house, in Los Angeles, is people with other career sights, for the most part people with ambitions in creative fields or maybe people like myself who don’t have ambitions in creative fields, but coming from some semblance at least of privilege, of the language privilege of speaking English fluently, if often downwardly mobile.
I reject the framing that that is the only thing that allows people to take collective action or to do radical things.
I think often the opposite is true. It is also true that it is more comfortable to walk off. When you don’t have immigration questions and don’t have to worry about sending money to another place. All I have to worry about is paying for my expenses.
That was true in American Beauty. We had people who wanted pay raises and wanted to stay. They would have loved to have received the benefits there, too. But because employers hold so much leverage in terms of the ability to get somebody another job, or employ friends, roommates — family members especially like a restaurant group, like the one that American Beauty is a part of — a lot of these folks, didn’t feel like they had the option to go public. That’s something that takes time and things accelerated very quickly in American Beauty in a way none of us foresaw.
But had we engaged in a longer process, I think you hope to keep having conversations with those people. The way you organize, in my mind, is making sure everyone is safe. And the way you make sure everyone is safe is by making sure the most vulnerable are safe.
It’s like the idea of the Combahee river collective. If the most marginalized are protective then the rest of us are protected. And that’s true in a restaurant too, right? If the non-documented dishwasher, who management looks the other way, when he tries a few different E-Verify numbers, if he’s protected and he doesn’t have to worry about saying, “no,” to the boss because the boss might rat him out to ICE or something. If his needs are met, then all of our needs will probably be met.
I wish I had a magic solution. But just demonstrating that to folks and being decent and daily acts of solidarity, are what we tried to do. But time never lined up where we could get folks publicly on board with us.
For so long where I worked, it was easy as service staff for a lot of us to turn the other cheek or just turn a blind eye to that. What touched me the most coming out of this action was that the first demand people wanted to make was for the back of house. That’s such an obvious act of solidarity. Even the highest earning server, and you can make good money in certain places, has more in common with the dishwasher than with the person who’s writing your check.
Sky: Do you think there’s going to be more of this kind of action in LA going forward?
Sam: The hope is that we are like dominoes pushing the next guy so that the next domino will fall as well. And I think that the reopening is a specific little window for us in the restaurant world. I hope we’re coming to our militancy and seeing the opportunities that exist.