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Workers at the Legendary NYC Cocktail Bar Death & Co Are Unionizing

"Passion gets manipulated, and a lot of people are getting sick of it."

(Stanislav Ivanitskiy / Unsplash)

A version of this report was originally published last week at Fingers, an independent newsletter about drinking in America by award-winning journalist Dave Infante. For a limited time, Hell Gate readers can score a year of Fingers for 20 percent off here

Earlier this month, workers at New York City's Death & Co cocktail lounge went public with a union drive. Staffers at the hugely influential cocktail bar say they want to improve working conditions and build a "bulwark" against any erosion in the bar's legendary quality standards as its parent company expands nationally. It's an organizing effort nearly without precedent in the high-end mixology business, and in one of the world's most well-renowned tipple temples. The firm's founder has pleaded ignorance to the workers' grievances, and has so far declined to voluntarily recognize a supermajority of union support, forcing a formal election later this month. Death & Co Workers United (D&CWU) says it has the juice.

"Today, we are proud to announce that we have filed our petition with the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] to be recognized as Death & Co Workers United," read their inaugural social media post from November 3, which included a copy of a letter the union sent on October 27 to the management of the bar's parent company, Gin & Luck, requesting voluntary recognition. "With 100 percent of workers signing union authorization cards, we are confident that we will soon be able to build a workplace that works for EVERYONE."

A low union-density industry

It's a lofty goal. The independent food and beverage industry, or F&B, has precious few unions, and the rarified landscape of premium cocktail bars has even fewer. It's not because restaurants and bars are perfect places to work, mind you—the industry is lousy with wage theft and on-the-job harassment, and the pandemic threw the precarity of service workers into such stark relief that many of them left the business entirely. But F&B is geographically fractured with tens of thousands of tiny shops across the country, making them difficult prospects for unions with few professional organizers and fewer resources. And trade groups like the National Restaurant Association have spent millions to keep the labor movement out of the industry.

Moreover, there's a culture of job-hopping amongst rank-and-file workers, especially highly skilled ones like cocktail bartenders, that makes the union pitch difficult for organizers. "When people feel unwanted, or they feel like they're not a fit for a certain place, they say, 'Oh, there's got to be somewhere else out there,'" Marc Rizzuto, a bartender at Death & Co, told Fingers in a phone interview. In nearly 15 years in the service industry, he's done the same. But when his partner landed a job in a hotel bar, she joined up with the union that repped its housekeeping staff, and her wages, benefits, and job security sounded pretty good. Rizzuto's wheels started turning. "How come we don't get that in any other bar in New York City?" he said, describing his mindset prior to taking a job at Death & Co roughly three years ago.

"Passion gets manipulated"

The iconic East Village bar does offer some of those things, and to hear Rizzuto and his coworker Thomas Van de Pas describe it, it's a better job than other F&B firms they've worked at in their careers. But they say Death & Co, and the cocktail industry writ large, can and should be more equitable for workers. "This sector of the bar industry is very ripe for unionization" in both ideology and practice, said Van de Pas, who has been at Death & CO for nearly two years, first as a barback and now as a server. Like his coworker, he's optimistic the drive at Death & Co might inspire colleagues at other bars to take a look at what unions have to offer.

Some of D&CWU workers' grievances are standard for employees across industrial sectors: They want more control over their schedules and shift breaks, better hourly pay, and more robust healthcare. Other concerns are familiar to workers at companies that are scaling quickly. Gin & Luck's expansion of the Death & Co brand—to Denver in 2018, Los Angeles in 2019, and Washington, D.C. earlier this year, not to mention a bougie merchandise line and a growing catalogue of recipe books—is a point of apprehension for Van de Pas. He hopes unionizing can act as a "bulwark" against any downward pressures on quality and an instrument for holding both management and workers accountable to the firm's best-in-class reputation, even as it ventures further afield, away from its roots.

Van de Pas described a culture in the East Village location where staffers earn that reputation night in and night out with "very long hours at a very high level of precision" sustained by creative passion, rather than systemic support. The cocktail world celebrates this type of obsessive individual effort, but it can also leave workers vulnerable to exploitation, or even unable to perceive that exploitation. "I think some of that passion gets manipulated, and a lot of people are getting sick of it," he said.

It's an affliction more endemic to niche, craft-oriented industries, and Rizzuto thinks it's a problem at Death & Co, particularly for the firm's ace bar staff. For example, in the months leading up to the bar's twice-annual menu changeover (a massive undertaking that has helped keep the bar at the fore of an increasingly competitive mixology landscape after nearly two decades in business), bartenders are expected to do meticulous, deep-dive research and testing on potential new cocktails' ingredients and methods. It's not an explicit job requirement, said Rizzuto: "'Encouraged' is the word that they prefer to use." Besides a single 90-minute R&D meeting on the clock, he added, "we are not paid for any of this."

Communication frustration

The workers have found these pain points difficult to address through the existing management structure at Gin & Luck. Van de Pas described "a barrage of changes in our style of service that have happened without the say of the workers," and Rizzuto flagged concerns over retaliation for speaking up. "Issues in the past that have come up, mainly with the bar staff, as to how we can actually speak to ownership directly without any repercussions," says Rizzuto. "We had gone to a labor lawyer in the past, and he said, 'Well, are you guys a union? If not, you're kind of fucked in this situation.'"

In June, the "barrage" reached a breaking point when Gin & Luck made a unilateral adjustment to the structure of the Death & Co tip pool. Rizzuto said the change happened "without any notice," and that it resulted in less wages for roughly 75 percent of the staff. Worse still, management wouldn't address complaints. "When asked about it, they pretty much just left all of our Slack messages on read," he said. "They acknowledged little bits that they wanted to and then they ignored the fact that we were concerned about losing our wages."

It was a flashpoint. With help from an organizer at Workers United who has worked on several Starbucks drives, Rizzuto, Van de Pas, and a cadre of other pro-union workers began organizing their Death & Co colleagues in earnest. Just a few months later, they'd collected a signed union card from all 17 hosts, bartenders, servers, barbacks, and chefs. On October 27, they emailed Gin & Luck asking the firm to voluntarily recognize D&CWU.

"We have always had an open forum for dialogue"

David Kaplan, the founder and co-owner of Death & Co, told Fingers that that email caught him by surprise, as did the details of workers' complaints that I relayed to him over the phone. "This is the first time I'm hearing of any of these grievances in relation to the unionization effort," he said, reiterating the sentiment at least half a dozen times in our 30-minute interview. In addition to Death & Co's "above industry standard" wage program, subsidized healthcare, and other benefits, Kaplan said, "we have always had an open forum for dialogue and feedback from employees." All employees have access to the company's Slack channel, and the firm does quarterly "state of the company" meetings, he added.

I asked him how to reconcile the contradictions between his views of the work environment at Death & Co with those of the employees I spoke with. He disagreed with the premise. "I wouldn't say the two [perspectives] don't line up," he said. "But I would go so far as to say clearly, communication is not happening here."

But communication isn't the only issue. Gin & Luck's refusal to voluntarily recognize D&CWU on its requested timeline, Kaplan told me, was initially due to confusion over the drive's veracity: The email came from an unfamiliar Gmail account, "so we spent a few days not knowing if this was legitimate or if it was phishing." But though the union agreed to delay filing for an election for a few days to give management more time to validate and deliberate its request, the company has still opted to force a vote before the NLRB rather than more streamlined paths like voluntary recognition, card check, or third-party balloting.

This choice stems not from a failure in communication, but management's apparent skepticism of the supermajority of support D&CWU claims amongst its East Village employees.

"We want to make sure that no strong voices [are] strong-arming any of our employees into something they don't otherwise want to do," said Kaplan, arguing that an NLRB election "feels the most democratic." (If there's evidence of such coercion, I haven't seen it, and Kaplan offered none.)

NLRB votes are democratic, but take much more time than also-democratic, third-party-supervised elections, and the former can be postponed for months or even years by a variety of well-worn anti-union tactics. Such delays are killers for union drives, especially in the F&B space. "Time is huge, and employers know that," labor scholar Benjamin Anderson told me last year, discussing a union campaign at Creature Comforts Brewing Co. that failed in an NLRB election last month after seven months of delays.

"100 percent of your staff wants this"

Gin & Luck hasn't expedited its workers' path to the bargaining table, but it has not made any extraordinary moves to deliberately block them, either. The vote is currently scheduled for late November, and Kaplan said the company "would of course recognize the results and move forward in good faith."

Whether it's acting in good faith right now is an open question. What Death & Co's founder considers fair, some of his employees view as a needless stalling tactic under false pretenses. "They're saying, 'Oh, we're a democratic employer, we care about our staff,'" said Rizzuto, "but it's pretty clear that 100 percent of your staff wants this. You're just gonna see 100 percent of us voting yes."

Van de Pas agreed: "The margin is gonna be ridiculous."

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