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Asheville Food & Beverage United to form a new labor union

 Members of the Asheville Food & Beverage United and Democratic Socialists of Asheville at a rally in downtown Asheville's Pack Square.
Courtesy of AFBU
Members of the Asheville Food & Beverage United and Democratic Socialists of Asheville during a rally at downtown Asheville's Pack Square.

Asheville Food & Beverage United (AFBU), an organization that bills itself as a “worker-led coalition dedicated to advocacy, support and empowerment,” is forming its own labor union to support food, beverage, and hospitality workers.

Asheville resident Jen Hampton, who has worked in the service industry for more than 30 years, is leading the charge. As a service worker in North Carolina, Hampton said she faced a slew of challenges at work from lack of paid sick time and low wages to scheduling issues that made it near-impossible to plan for doctor’s visits, family time, and other important life events.

The difficulties became particularly clear during the pandemic when she contracted COVID-19 twice from coworkers.

“They also had to come to work sick because we don't have paid time off,” she said. “And I even had to go back to work when I started feeling a little bit better and I was still [testing] positive because I desperately needed my paycheck."

 A photo of Jen Hampton, AFBU Chair, in a black sweatshirt.
Courtesy of AFBU
Jen Hampton, AFBU chair.

For a long time, Hampton considered the problems she faced specific to her situation. When she and a group of local service industry workers formed a Facebook group called Asheville Food and Beverage Tribe in 2020, she discovered she was not alone in her challenges.

“My whole life I just thought the problems I’ve faced economically, you know working in the food service industry, I thought it was just all my fault,” Hampton said. "But then I realized, no, everybody’s dealing with the same issues in the industry and it’s not okay.”

From those online conversations, the Facebook group evolved into Asheville Food & Beverage United. The group facilitated workshops and advocacy events for local union drives, including helping staff in the unionization and ongoing contract negotiations at the Green Sage – South location.

Last year, the group rallied for more affordable parking options downtown for service industry employees, which led to Buncombe County launching a new affordable parking program.

Hampton, now a full-time organizer, serves as ABFU’s steering committee chair. She collaborates with four other committee members who have backgrounds in food delivery and service, bartending, and organizing.

In addition to the committee, Hampton said the AFBU has a mailing list of around 3,000 people, with a “couple hundred people who are consistently active.”

As a 501(c)5 trade union, ABFU will provide a specific space for food and beverage employees who were previously joining larger national unions like the Teamsters.

“[The people who organize with Teamsters] are really cool people, but they're very busy with their big shops like Amazon or UPS…so they don't have a lot of the personal resources available to help small restaurants,” she said. "We're more in touch with the community already because we're a part of this community.”

Hampton said the group would like to serve Buncombe County’s 21,000 service workers.

AFBU started the legal process of formation in January and plans to announce the trade union in September, Hampton said.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.