This past summer, as restaurant workers across America were revolting against working conditions and wages with work stoppages and mass resignations, a small group of back-of-house workers at upmarket Texas-based juice chain JuiceLand sparked a strike that brought the company to a standstill.
After a long year of working through the pandemic, and several of dealing with unresponsive management, JuiceLand workers had enough in May 2021. The strike began on May 14 when, after a failed meeting with corporate leadership, 10 workers at the central production kitchen in Austin walked off the job. Within a week, some 80 workers had joined in the work stoppage, resulting in temporary closures across nine locations.
Workers involved with the strike said they wanted the demonstration limited to JuiceLand workers; they chose not to partner with an external union because they wanted to remain independent of outside influence. Instead, they established an employee committee to represent workers on behalf of management, without the support of a union. Though several unions did reach out, the strikers ultimately chose to remain self-organized and did not seek to formally unionize amid the strike.
While a months-long strike and social media actions did successfully win some concessions from JuiceLand management within the first few days — modest wage increases and the implementation of new human resources policies — it ultimately fell short of achieving its stated demands: resolving how to respond to specific allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Within a week, talks between strike representatives and JuiceLand management foundered.
Workers were then given an ultimatum: Return to their jobs or be replaced. Most returned, and by the end of May, the last of the impacted locations reopened for business. As of this writing, 65 of the 80 striking workers are back on the job, and the remainder have been replaced.
The mixed results of their effort demonstrate both the potential and limitations of what a non-union restaurant worker strike can accomplish, as well as the risks that non-union strikers face if negotiations with management don’t go so smoothly.
JuiceLand started from humble origins in the early 2000s when founder and CEO Matt Shook opened the original location near Barton Springs. Since then, the chain has grown to 35 locations across Austin, Houston, and Dallas, employing nearly 600 staffers.
The company has a reputation for touting its environmentally conscious practices and laid-back culture. “I think the perception is still that we’re nothing but a bunch of slacker hippies, and that’s great,” Shook told Austin Monthly in January 2021.
But according to three JuiceLand workers and one former employee that agreed to speak with Eater Austin on the condition of anonymity, the vibe behind the scenes wasn’t as copacetic as advertised. Their names have been changed for clarity. Each claim has been independently corroborated by coworkers on background. Representatives for Juiceland declined to address specific incidents and allegations related to employees with Eater. Long hours, concerns around pay, a perceived gap between the stated values of the company and the day-to-day experiences of workers, and specific alleged incidents of harassment and discrimination contributed to growing dissatisfaction among some JuiceLand workers, mirroring broader industry trends.
One of these employees, Taylor, spent his days out of customers’ sights at the JuiceLand production kitchen processing fruit and vegetables to be used in retail stores across the state. Taylor liked the job. He’d been working there for several years by the time the strike started. Most of his coworkers were easy enough to be around and he didn’t have to deal with customers, so things were relatively drama-free. But starting in October 2019, Taylor claims he began to endure regular sexual misconduct from a fellow worker.
“They would stand outside my car, try to bite me on the shoulder, or push against me when I would walk by,” Taylor recounted to Eater Austin. The alleged behavior went on for several months until, in December 2019, Taylor raised the issue with his superiors. “I brought it up to my managers at the time, which in retrospect was a mistake. They never reported it to HR.”
Michael, another production kitchen employee, witnessed some of those events Taylor experienced. “They would taunt [Taylor] outside of the bathroom stall and pretend to bite his neck, like in a sexual way,” Michael says.
Michael and Taylor were among the 10 workers who participated in the initial walkout on May 14 that sparked the strike. They both shared the story of a former coworker, Brandon, who had endured racist harassment between April and November 2019 from another worker at the production kitchen.
“He would say racist things to me,” Brandon told Eater. Brandon recounted other incidents which he described as microaggressions, including “threats of being stabbed, shot.”
Brandon says he brought these incidents up with JuiceLand management every time they occurred, but feels his allegations weren’t taken seriously. “I told them what [the alleged harasser] said in detail,” Brandon says. “And the best way to describe how they dealt with it is non-confrontational. I think they didn’t want to acknowledge that an employee they had trusted for years would say gross things all the time.”
Taylor recounted an incident where Brandon got into a tense argument with that particular coworker in October 2019. “One day they were taking out the trash to the compost and he had said something to [Brandon],” Taylor says. “I don’t know what exactly he said since it was a while back, but they got into a verbal altercation, and then the non-Black employee went to the managers and told them [Brandon] was being aggressive and threatening … And then about a month later, Brandon was fired because he was late, and the other employee was promoted to manager.”
Kathleen Lucente, a corporate spokesperson for JuiceLand, dismisses the claims that management has tolerated discrimination and harassment within its ranks. “Because we do not comment on individual situations, our only response is that all allegations brought to our attention were investigated,” Lucente wrote in a statement to Eater. “Although not everyone will always agree on the outcomes or know all the details of an investigation, we do not tolerate harassment as an organization.”
As the months passed, dissatisfaction with management grew, particularly with the manager who had been promoted in the wake of Brandon’s firing. The low staff morale at the production facility was compounded by a grueling 12-hour Mother’s Day shift in May 2021. Workers had to fill more orders than average while short-staffed — a common theme in the service industry during the pandemic that’s fueled similar worker organizing. The next day, 10 workers took their concerns to management, demanding a meeting with the JuiceLand director of human resources, Jennifer Cupid.
On May 14, that two-hour meeting between the disgruntled production staff and Cupid ended without clear resolution. “Part of the reason the meeting went so badly was they weren’t able to give the answers we were looking for,” Michael says.
Three of the 10 workers resigned on the spot. The rest decided to go on strike. They walked to a nearby bar and began reaching out to store workers and delivery drivers via text and group chats, inviting them to join in a work stoppage.
The next day, staffers at the South First store joined in the strike and temporarily shut down the location. A sign was posted on the window acknowledging what had happened. It read: “We’re joining other JuiceLands + our production warehouse in a strike for better wages, working conditions, + accountability for racism and sexism within the company.”
As word spread via group text, more retail workers refused to show up to work. “I personally have really enjoyed working for JuiceLand and that’s one reason why I’m on this strike,” Lee, a retail worker, told Eater in June. “Because I want this company that I have really enjoyed working for to be better to its employees.”
That same day, Cupid sent a company-wide email announcing a guaranteed $15 an hour after tips for retail staff, which was up from its then-standard of $12.50. “You’ve expressed your concerns, and we’ve listened,” Cupid wrote in the email, which was provided to Eater. “That’s why we’re announcing that, starting 5/16/2021, all shop crews will be guaranteed $15/hr, meaning if you make less than $15 per hour after tips per pay period, we will level you up.”
On May 15, the strikers rejected management’s proposal and provided a set of counter demands: increased wages for both retail and production staff, approval of managers by worker vote, minimum staffing requirements, overtime pay, improved workplace sanitation, and no retaliation against strikers.
The strikers publicly shared the demands through an Instagram account. The next day, workers also shared anonymous, unverified accounts further detailing allegations of racism and sexism at JuiceLand.
Following this rebuttal, JuiceLand management raised wages to $17, but despite this concession, tensions escalated over the following week. At this point, dozens were on strike and nine representatives were elected to attend a six-hour marathon meeting on May 17 where JuiceLand management offered demonstrators the opportunity to help write a joint statement to give an update to employees at the company on the status of these negotiations.
But when it came time to review the draft approved by management, the strikers say they were dismayed by what they saw. “It lacked a number of points,” says Michael, who was involved in the negotiations, “the biggest one being that most of the issues stemmed from Black and Brown folks just not being heard on the job.”
In particular, strikers say that JuiceLand management did not agree that the incidents of racism and sexism were systemic issues at the company and that the strike had originated from the walkout of primarily Black and Brown employees at the production kitchen.
JuiceLand leadership ultimately decided to send the email without the worker committee’s input. “It was content we hadn’t agreed was accurate,” Lucente says. “We knew we had claims and concerns we needed to dig into so we could be well-informed, and not solely reactive. Therefore we moved forward internally with what we knew to be true as an appropriate update,” she says of the corporate response.
The divide between strikers and management sharpened over the course of the next week. Strikers criticized management on Instagram while JuiceLand management published an FAQ page aimed to rebut striker allegations.
“We would have been happy to issue a joint statement of principles,” one answer reads. “But the protestors wanted something quite different: they were demanding that we falsely state that we have a racist and toxic workplace. It isn’t true and we will not submit to that kind of coercion. Instead, we are putting our energy toward making JuiceLand an even better place as we implement our Action Plan.”
On May 23, Dallas strikers were informed in an email that they would be replaced if they did not request to return to work by June 3. The last remaining shop to be impacted by the strike — the Sylvan Thirty outpost in Dallas — reopened for business two days later. A similar message was sent to Austin strikers on June 3. “These dates were selected based on staffing disruptions in each market,” Lucente explains.
Despite the return of most strikers by early June, some remain firm in their convictions, even if it means they may never work at JuiceLand again.
“I don’t expect to get my role back because I’ve been so vocal with management,” Taylor says. “But I want my job back, as long as they can meet our conditions, which includes addressing racism among employees and truly making this the safe place that they promote themselves as.”
As of this writing, Taylor is among the 15 strikers who have not returned.
Lacking any real ability to disrupt business at JuiceLand, the strike has been effectively quashed, even if the organizers say otherwise.
On July 19, the holdout strikers posted an update on Instagram, announcing a pause in their social media activities. “The strike has been strenuous both emotionally and financially. Therefore, we have had to take a step back from Instagram to ensure this movement can continue…To be clear, we are still on strike. We don’t intend to stop until there is real resolution regarding the grievances brought to JuiceLand,” the post reads.
Across the country, fast-food workers have gone on strike demanding a $15 minimum wage, and in terms of achieving this common goal, the JuiceLand strikers have fared as well if not better than others. But some JuiceLand strikers want more than just a raise. They seek to change the culture and have a say in how management decisions are made; in doing so, they are fighting an uphill battle. Without the support of a larger, well-funded union organization, it’s unclear that they ever will. Other restaurant workers have successfully unionized elsewhere in the country, including Wisconsin-based chain Colectivo Coffee in August and Pacific Northwestern chain Burgerville in 2019 by aligning themselves with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Portland Industrial Workers of the World, respectively.
Nevertheless, for these holdout JuiceLand strikers, the ongoing action — even if only in spirit — is about affecting real, lasting change in an industry plagued by systemic labor issues and hostile work environments. “It is about accountability for the racism, sexism, and homophobia that’s been allowed to exist within JuiceLand,” Lee says. “We want JuiceLand to be the safe space it claims that it is.”