“Again??” Patrick stormed into the kitchen, his face a shade brighter than the ketchup he was licking off his thumb, beads of sweat emerging from the pores on his forehead. “Another no call no show? What’s going on? I have never had to deal with turnover like this. Shit. Javi, don’t you have another cousin or something you can call?”

Javier stared at him blankly.

“Artro primero? No tee-en?” He was so angry his sweat was practically steaming up into the vacuum of the hood. “Fuck. I guess I’ll just call the agency.” He didn’t wait for a response.

“No voy a traer a nadie más de mi familia aquí,” Javier muttered to Carlos as the kitchen

door swung violently behind Patrick. “No por lo que pagan. Ni siquiera he escuchado de Felipe

desde que dejó de aparecer. Probablemente me odia por decirle que viniera a trabajar con

nosotros.”

Vivian and Sienna had been polishing glasses, listening to Patrick’s raised voice booming from the kitchen, making sure to look fully immersed in the task as he blew past them, a stomping one-man stampede of fury barreling his way from the kitchen to the dining room.

“Wow. I guess we lost another dishwasher. What is that, like the fourth in four months?” Sienna said as she held another Burgundy glass to the steam.

“Yeah, and Javi said it’s always the same thing. They finish their shift, clean up, lock up, and peace out. Forever. Like total radio silence, they’re that pissed off.”

“Weird. But like, they clean up and everything? If they’re going to just quit without notice never to be heard from again, why do they bother? Do you think it has something to do with the new ownership? I mean, nothing much has changed for us, but maybe they’re fucking with back of house more than we know?”

Vivian shrugged. 

“These glasses are coming out all streaky. Look— there’s like goop on the rim.” Sienna was happy to change the subject. She knew the dishwasher situation was a little raw for Vivian since Juan dropped off the face of the Earth a few months ago. They had started seeing each other and then one day he just vanished. He stopped coming to work and she never heard from him again. It’s hard not to take things like that personally, getting ghosted on that badly like just because he quit the job he had to quit her too.

Patrick ended up putting one of the bussers on dish that night, and a few days later he was able to find someone to take the position. His name was Diego and the man was huge. He was so big, he had to crouch under doorways and could barely fit in the walk-in. But he made it work— for someone so monumentally tall and strong, he was equally agile, and a perfect employee. He was glad for the job; he’d had a hard time finding steady work and the position called for six shifts a week, which, even though the pay wasn’t what he’d have wanted, the hours made up for it.

No one was happier than Patrick. “You’re gonna stick around, amigo? Don’t go running away on us, okay?”

“No, sir. I like it here,” he responded. Patrick smiled and left the kitchen.

Vivian and Sienna were back polishing glasses before service, talking about how grateful they were not to have to be scraping little bits off the stemware anymore.

“It’s like every time one of them jumps ship, they deliberately mess up the dishwasher so that it leaves all that crap on everything. Like some kind of final ‘fuck you’ to the job. They clean everything else up on the way out but leave crap all in the machine? And it’s always us who has to deal with it.” She held her glass to the light. “It’s not like Patrick ever sees.”

“Yeah. Patrick’s useless,” Vivian agreed. “But Diego’s great. He got the whole thing working like new again. He said he had to pull out this big wad of hair or something that somehow got stuck in there. It was clogging everything up, but he fixed it.”

“Hair?” Sienna questioned, thoroughly disgusted.

“Well it probably wasn’t hair, it was probably like some scrubber sponge that had been lodged in the machine for months and got all stringy and black from mildew or whatever. But how gross is that? Diego was super weirded out about it.”

“Yeah of course— it sounds disgusting. But, other than that, he likes it here?”

“Yeah,” Vivian said. “He seems really happy.”

“Ugh thank god.”

For the next three weeks everything was perfect. Diego wasn’t just the model employee Patrick had prayed for, he was loved by the entire staff as if he’d been there forever. He would bring in homemade pupusas and share them with everyone for family meal. Even though he was always the last one in the restaurant at the end of the night, everyone made a point of grabbing drinks down the block so he could come when he was all done and hang out. He was just great to be around. 

Then, one night, he didn’t show up to the bar. Javier checked the time and saw that it was already 1:00. Way later than Diego usually wrapped up and they had gotten out pretty early that night. They started getting concerned that maybe something happened, so Javier and Carlos headed back over to the restaurant to check up on him.

All the lights were still on and the dishwasher was running. But it sounded all jammed up, like it was choking on something, and Diego was gone. They figured he was probably downstairs checking the plumbing and decided to wait for him by the machine in case it exploded, which it sounded like it might. The noises were getting louder, constant thuds and violent banging, so Carlos decided to lift the door and check what was going on in there.

And he found Diego. It was absolute carnage— blood and guts and bone all stirred up in the Ecolab, the drain struggling to gulp the remains of what once was Diego down the pipes. 

Javier and Carlos were so stunned by the mess of viscera, the ribbons of flesh that got twisted around the insides of the machine, the detached eyeball that bounced around as the spinning slowed, the expression on what remained of his face, that they didn’t hear the footsteps coming up the stairs.

“He was too big.” The voice from behind them jolted them out of their shock. “I told Patrick to keep the dishwashers under 5’10. He broke the machine.” It was the owner. He had come up from the office when he heard the machine stop running.

“What?” Javier had only joked about the picking off of dishwashers as an explanation for the mass disappearances that had occurred. He had never thought it could actually be anything so sinister.

“Coming into our country. No papers. No trail. It’s so easy. None of them want any involvement with law enforcement. A victimless crime, you know?” Without hesitation, the owner of the restaurant produced a gun from his pocket and shot both Javier and Carlos on the spot. The men fell to the floor, dead. “See? No one will miss you either.”

First, he called Patrick to let him know to alert the staff that the restaurant would be closed the next day. He had a lot more clean-up than he was used to. Then, before they started to decompose, while there were traces of life still in them, he drained the bodies that belonged to Carlos and Javier of their blood, rinsed his hands off in the sani bucket, and called the landlord.

“Hey, it’s me. I have this month’s offering all bottled up for you. But tonight I got three. You think we could make it thirty percent in that case?”

The man on the other end of the phone did not sound as impressed as he had hoped. “That’s not how this works. One body worth of blood is worth ten percent off your rent. There is nothing in our agreement that states that three bodies will get you thirty. The sacrifice requires precisely what I have asked of you. What do you expect me to do with the rest of it? Freeze it? It won’t keep. You think He wants to drink bitter blood? Don’t insult me like that. And you know only so much pulp can fit through the pipes without clogging them. The other two bodies are yours to dispose of. You figure it out.” And he hung up the phone, leaving the owner alone in the silent room with three dead employees and more work ahead of him than he had bargained for.

Brewers are self-medicating with brews, absent healthcare benefits

Few jobs sound as cool as being a brewer. Faces light up when you explain that you work in a brewery; it has the same bucolic appeal as organic farming or owning a bed-and-breakfast.  For many city dwellers who are slaving away to pay rent by shuffling papers, the grass seems so much greener in those hop-filled pastures. 

But, it’s not all green grass over there.

There’s a lot to like about working in a brewery. Physically creating something and shepherding it through its life cycle can be incredibly rewarding. Working in the taproom and on the packaging line forges tight bonds amongst workers and hey, at the end of a long, hectic day, you get to lean back into an Adirondack chair and enjoy a shift beer with the crew.

Problem is, it’s rarely just one shifty, and the reason you get so tight with coworkers is that the conditions of the actual work are generally miserable. Misery breeds company, but in the beer industry, it often breeds an alcohol dependency as well.

Substance abuse in the brewing industry is rarely discussed, and when it is, it’s typically coming from the bosses’ perspective. An oversaturated market, tight margins, and the sheer volume of debt taken on during start-up for smaller breweries create a stressful situation for the owners. There is something to be said for the pressure put on smaller local breweries when over 80% of the total volume of beer produced in 2019 was manufactured by only 21 breweries. What about the workers caught in the competition for that last 20% of the market share?

Small breweries made up over 90% of all breweries in the country as of 2019 and employed roughly 160,000 people. Unfortunately, many of these breweries look like a “what not to do” OSHA pamphlet. On the brewery production floor, workers are routinely dealing with a laundry list of conditions that pose serious health hazards; floors perpetually slick with an unidentifiable mix of fluids, vats of scalding liquid, exposed steam pipes, lax PPE policies, vessels under intense pressure, and confined spaces filled with noxious gas – just to name a few. Add an endless stream of heavy grain bags that need to be moved from one place to another and packaging machinery held together with duct tape and a dream, and it’s enough to make anybody reach for a beer at the end of the day. 

Given these conditions and the typically meager wages, one could reasonably assume that breweries at least provide solid health benefits to keep their workers from literally breaking down on the job.  

But that isn’t the case. Forty-four percent of brewery workers said they have no health benefits whatsoever, and another 27% of workers have health benefits they characterize as “bad.” In sum, around 70% of the craft beer workforce have subpar health benefits, if they have any, and are working in classically immiserating factory conditions. 

In tacit acknowledgment of the lack of benefits offered, breweries everywhere typically allow workers access to otherwise unsellable products as unofficial compensation. For instance, there’s often a pallet of beers that are unfit for sale sitting in the back of the warehouse, marked for “destruction.” Workers are allowed, with a wink and a nod, to “destroy” as many beers as they can carry. Between these “low-fills,” the aforementioned post-shift beer, and on the job ‘quality control’ sampling, it’s easy to end up with a steady buzz throughout the work week.

The work conditions and unfettered access to alcohol dovetail to create grotesque substance abuse problems. Brewery workers can easily become dependent on the product they create to dull the pain and stress caused by the conditions in which they make it. Bum shoulder from hauling grain sacks? Beer can help with that. Back hurting from walking kegs up a flight of stairs? Another pint for you. Get your hand caught in the box shop? Why not ice it with a frosty can, straight from the cooler?

Emily McCoy, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who volunteers with the CHAAD Project, spoke with me about how many workers in the service industry (or who are otherwise overexposed to alcohol and stressful working conditions) cultivate substance dependencies because, “high costs coping tools actually appear to be low cost. “If you think about drinking,” she explained, “there’s easier access to booze, which makes it feel like a lower cost financially.”  

Without healthcare, many workers feel as though they can’t go to the doctor for fear of missed wages, high premiums or other issues associated with financial insecurity, “So it’s actually a higher cost to me to go see a doctor. It’s a lower cost to me to drink  a beer…to use a beer to get through this particular situation.”

Additionally, a social pressure is often found in the beverage industry that manifests in the idea that, “if I don’t go out after work and go drinking with my coworkers, then I’m not going to bond with them,” McCoy says. 

Anyone familiar with alcoholism will recognize this slippery slope on which many brewery workers, and workers in the food & beverage more generally, find themselves. The ease of access to the substance in question and difficulty in accessing care creates situations in which social drinking can disintegrate into alcoholism. 

A 1986 court case details a worker who slid all the way to the bottom. Gacioch v. Stroh Brewery Co. centered around a worker’s compensation claim made by a 30-year employee of the Stroh Brewery Co. The worker, Casimer Gacioch, argued that the brewery perpetuated conditions that exacerbated his chronic alcoholism. He argued that by allowing workers to consume as many beers as they wished at designated “relief stations” during their shift, the employer was in effect normalizing alcohol use amongst its workforce. Gaciochwas ultimately fired for being drunk on the job.

Ultimately the courts ruled in favor of Stroh Brewery Co. In a nominally dissenting opinion, Judge Brickley opines on the nature of what sort of injury or disease should be covered by worker’s compensation laws: 

“Since many of these diseases are progressive, ordinary activities of life will aggravate and accelerate them. Given that work fills the major portion of most persons’ lives, a finding that an ordinary disease of life is aggravated and accelerated by employment is an unremarkable development.”

Here, the twisted logic of capitalism, guarded by our institutions, is on full display. This system is inherently exploitative, and workers are simply expected to deal with the debilitating results of the conditions in which they work. 

Fortunately for workers, we can find support outside the diseased institutions that stand watch for the bosses. 

Organizations like the CHAAD (Chicago Hospitality Accountable Actions) Project model a new method of accountability for the service and hospitality industries. Using worker-driven data collection, the CHAAD Project serves as a database for tracking the workplace practices and ethical profile of local restaurants. 

This affords workers access to information about the conditions in the business before starting work as well as allowing consumers the opportunity  to make more informed decisions. This model could be expanded to other industries to allow manufacturing and production workers to walk clear-eyed into their shops.  

The volunteer-run project also hosts workshops designed to help workers recognize and address “small T” traumas while on the job in a healthier manner than sneaking a drink on the clock. 

For workers struggling with substance dependency, support systems like  Ben’s Friends are another valuable resource. Ben’s Friends is a non-profit organization that offers a safe, supportive environment for folks in the service industry to discuss and seek help for their struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse. With chapters in 13 cities that hold weekly meetings, as well as national online meetings held four times a week, Ben’s Friends is an invaluable support system open to all service and hospitality industry workers. 

But the Left cannot content itself with bandaging the wounds of workers, we must actively struggle to improve working conditions for all. Union organizing and solidarity play a vital role in workers’ struggle for better conditions and equitable compensation. To this end, organizations like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) are doing crucial work in educating workers on how to organize effectively. But in order to actualize the Union’s potential to fight for workers, we must first eliminate existing limitations to workplace organizing embodied by so-called “Right to Work” legislation. 

Enter: the PRO Act. The PRO Act is the most comprehensive, pro-worker legislation to be introduced in over 40 years. While the PRO Act was passed by the House in 2019, there are still major hurdles to clear before it can be signed into law; namely, Senators in the pocket of corporations, and a relic of Jim Crow known as the filibuster. 

The restaurant and beer industries are breeding grounds for substance abuse and dependency, with workers being surrounded by alcohol and subjected to “fast-paced” work conditions. Capitalism tells us to shoulder the burden on our own, but by building solidarity among your co-workers and fighting for better conditions on the job, we can protect our health and maybe reclaim some wealth in the process.

Midwest success, a vaccination story

Service industry workers in Grand Rapids, Michigan began organizing around access to vaccinations because our lives were being put at risk at our jobs. Through the process of forming a campaign, we learned that not only is organizing in the service industry possible, but it can make a big difference. Here is the story of this campaign and how our organization, the Grand Rapids Service Industry Workers Coalition (GRSIWC) came together.

 

February 1st

Bars and restaurants in our state were allowed to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity. Only one week prior, cases of Covid-19 had risen in our state to 552,556 – including 14,405 deaths. Many workers in our industry were uneasy about going back to work, which meant being  face to face with the public and with the undetectable  threat of the virus. With only our facemasks to protect us, we began asking  why service industry workers were not being vaccinated before being sent  back to work.

Despite having been told since the beginning of the pandemic how essential we are, service industry workers somehow did not qualify as frontline essential workers, which meant we were not eligible for vaccination in our state. One day after Governor Whitmer announced the return of  indoor dining, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan declared that all food service workers who live or work in that  city could now get the shot. The news from Michigan’s largest city got a lot of us in Grand Rapids, the second largest, asking why our city government hadn’t done the same.

To answer that question, a co-worker and I brought other comrades in the industry together to start a campaign for the vaccination of service industry workers in our city. This was the founding of  GRSIWC. We formed to present a unified voice of workers’ interests in our industry. As a novice organizer, I turned to my DSA chapter and IWW branch for advice and support. Comrades from both groups generously shared organizational knowledge and went on to endorse and help promote our campaign. 

With help from GRDSA, we drafted a letter to local officials demanding vaccinations. GRSIWC began a social media campaign asking for service industry workers to share their thoughts and feelings about working in the face of Covid-19. People submitted heartbreaking stories of unsafe work conditions, rude customers, and indifferent owners, and illustrated the mental, physical, and financial stress that resulted from these circumstances. These testimonials played a large role in our campaign and brought the voices of workers to the forefront.

A month after the return to indoor dining, Covid-19 cases statewide increased by nearly 29,000, with nearly 1,000 fatalities.  At the same as the virus rates were rising,  the Governor announced that bars and restaurants could raise indoor dining capacity to 50%, with no further protections in place for workers. Even though many workers in the state were feeling increasingly unsafe at work, we  could not afford to stop working. Michigan’s unemployment agency, like those in states across the country, left countless workers frustrated and without benefits or receiving inadequate claims which weren’t enough to live on. It was clear that if we were going to to change our high risk situation, we were going to have to organize.

 

March 10th

We took our first collective action. We delivered a letter to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and city commissioners demanding immediate vaccination eligibility. We received same-day responses from the Mayor’s office and several commissioners that extended  passive support for our cause, but informed us that the vaccination program was not administered by the city. This was an oversight on the part of the GRSIWC, we expected the city government to follow Detroit’s example without determining if the city actually had the power to do so.

The GRSIWC quickly pivoted our target  to Kent County Health Department. We began an online petition that used  much of the language from the initial letter including several of the worker testimonials we had collected. We were still gathering signatures when  the state announced that they would be expanding eligibility to all adults starting April 5th. While this was good news, service industry workers were already at work and the open enrollment was still almost a month away, not to mention the inevitable wait times to get  an appointment.We needed to be vaccinated sooner than that.

March 15th 

We delivered our letter and petition with 300+ signatures to Dr. Adam London and other health department officials. We sent a version of the  letter, with a petition, to city officials asking them to lobby the county on our behalf. A response from Dr. London came the same day expressing sympathy for our cause, saying “You will be hearing more from us shortly”. This response promised us nothing and was insufficient and unacceptable to us,  so we responded demanding a commitment  to opening vaccinations to service industry workers at least two weeks before the April 5th open enrolment.Two days passed with no reply. So we began calling on residents to email Dr. London directly to pressure him to support our demand. 

 

March 19th 

The Kent County Health Department finally announced that service industry workers were now eligible for vaccination. After a month-long campaign, our collective action yielded results! This victory proved to be partially symbolic since many workers are still on waiting lists for vaccination appointments even though we are eligible. But it is an important victory none-the-less. Our story is an example of the power workers, unions, and socialist organizations working together can wield. Through solidarity we were able to affect change in the second largest city in Michigan. We still have much work to do in the name of service industry workers but this successful campaign, and the new organization that we are building in GRSIWC,  is a good place to start. Together we are capable of great things!

I would like to personally acknowledge the following comrades and organizations for their help and support of the vaccination campaign: Kim D, Jen K, GRDSA, IWW GR-GMB, On Guard Magazine, and Grand Rapids Mutual Aid Network. My roommate/coworker and I received our first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine on March 29th. 

 

 

The invisible workforce of delivery-only kitchens

With the increase in food delivery during the pandemic, the idea of virtual restaurants is probably familiar to most people in the food service industry by now.  A virtual restaurant operates out of an existing brick-and-mortar location, but the restaurant creates food for additional online-only, delivery-only brands which sell food through platforms like Grubhub, UberEats, and Doordash.  At this point, whether they realized it or not, most Americans ordering delivery have probably ordered from at least one virtual restaurant.

Ghost kitchens, on the other hand, are delivery-only kitchen facilities, have no connection to physical, dine-in spaces , and may run one or several online brands. Companies like CloudKitchens, started by Uber founder Travis Kalanick, are converting warehouses in out-of-the-way urban locations into multi-kitchen facilities. Prospective virtual restaurateurs can rent out a kitchen in these facilities, and quickly set up a delivery-only restaurant; in Boston, for example, a basic kitchen at CloudKitchen’s soon-to-open facility in Roxbury rents for around $5,000 a month.

The rise of app-based food delivery has already seriously threatened the restaurant industry, and ghost kitchens are poised to make the problem worse. With far lower rent than restaurants in high foot-traffic areas, virtual restaurants operating out of ghost kitchens will be able to undercut traditional restaurants in the delivery market. These ghost kitchens will not only attract would-be traditional diners, but will also eat into delivery orders that restaurants have increasingly built into their normal operating models, and come to rely heavily on during the pandemic as in-person revenues declined.

  Restaurants, and the workers that rely on them, will be less and less able to compete with the lower costs and convenience of ghost kitchens. This could be exacerbated if delivery companies operate or partner with ghost kitchens to reduce delivery fees, further undercutting restaurants in the delivery market. 

Some, like the author of this Grubstreet article, argue that ghost kitchens will never replace restaurants because they cannot compete with the in-person dining experience. But the litany of virtual restaurant failures from the past decade cited by the author do not mean it’s a doomed industry. Many concepts falter at first only to become ubiquitous later – just look at the failure of Webvan against the wide array of grocery delivery options available today. The logistical challenges, costs, and customer base for ghost kitchens’ products have obviously caught up with the times. And ghost kitchen facilities, focusing only on restaurant delivery and developed in strategic areas, will likely cut down on delivery time as they continue to expand.  

Of course delivery will never fully replace the restaurant experience, but in the end, ghost kitchens do not need to completely replace dining out in order to do serious damage to the restaurant industry, and it’s workers. Taking even five or ten percent of market share will do serious damage to restaurants and force some to close. This could have a negative impact on workers and their organizing efforts , if more front of house workers compete for fewer jobs, or owners use the threat of going completely online to fend off campaigns for reforms or higher wages. 

Ghost kitchens also make fully invisible a workforce that is already so often hidden from view behind the kitchen doors, and which has long been more vulnerable to exploitation as a low-wage, heavily immigrant workforce (which has been hard hit by the pandemic). These are often the same types of vulnerable workers already exploited by app-based delivery services as drivers, and presumably a boom in ghost kitchens would see a boom in this type of poorly protected work

History tells that even the most disruptive industries and technologies have a progressive side, and as delivery apps and ghost kitchens expand and scale up, they bring larger and larger workforces together under a single employer – what Marx would call “socialization“- the work becomes a collective endeavor (still under private ownership), but presenting new opportunities for collective organizing. Even as ghost kitchens displace workers, their development can create new opportunities. The job of socialists and anyone organizing in this industry is not to lament the inevitable march of history, but to keep apace with development and prepare both to anticipate challenges to take advantage of new opportunities.

Unlike much of the app- or cloud-based  economy, ghost kitchens operate out of one centralized location. Twenty kitchens in one warehouse means a lot of cooks in one building. This could lead to easier opportunities for worker organizing. Although the small size of the individual enterprises may pose an obstacle to full unionization, these workers will, if organized, have the potential to mount serious strikes. At the very least, these sites have the potential to be turned into strongholds of restaurant worker organizing, while overlapping with gig worker organizing in every city, and building power in the largely POC and immigrant workforces which tend to work back of house jobs.

Ghost kitchens also feed into Uber and Lyft’s business model of misclassification of workers, something organizers in the restaurant industry need to consider. Are food delivery drivers for Uber eats really more comparable to taxi drivers, like regular passenger-carrying Uber drivers – especially if they are often the same driver? Or are they in essence hospitality workers, replacing the front of house staff? The answer we come to as an industry will have profound implications for our organizing work. 

Another opportunity for service industry workers could be to organize cooperative efforts which utilize CloudKitchens, cutting out the bosses entirely. Socialists and labor theorists have long argued  that cooperatives on their own will never rid us of capitalism; nonetheless, they form one part of a holistic socialist strategy. Given the greater accessibility of opening a virtual restaurant out of a ghost kitchen – as compared to running a traditional restaurant – ghost kitchens may serve to facilitate the growth of worker-owned virtual restaurants. One cooperative in every CloudKitchen facility would be a big step towards organizing CloudKitchen workers, give workers an example of a less exploitative model, and could provide affordable, relatively ethical, and hopefully delicious food to socialists’ doorsteps. 

Ghost kitchens, and the capitalists backing them, will revolutionize the food service industry whether we like it or not. Line cooks will become less visible. Front of house workers will be replaced by misclassified delivery drivers. Delivered meals will eat into restaurants’ revenue. We can sit back and lament the changes they bring to an already hurting industry, or we can embrace them as new opportunities. Workers and organizers should be on the lookout for how to include ghost kitchens in local organizing efforts, consider them as potential sites for worker co-operatives, and to build solidarity between restaurant workers and app-based delivery workers. Class-conscious restaurant workers must lead the fight to determine whether this technological disruption benefits the capitalists like Kalahnik, or the workers themselves. 

Henry De Groot is an organizer with the Boston Independent Drivers Guild and a co-chair of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group.

Letter From the Editors: Back to Work

 

 

 

Are we starting to see light at the end of the tunnel? 

The number of administered vaccine doses is slowly rising (195 million in the US, at time of writing per the CDC) while lockdowns across the globe appear to ease and fall away on the spring breeze. 

In their wake is revealed… the wild uncertainty of new COVID variants and devastated economies. 

For better and worse, the one thing it seems safe to say is that everyone is ready to put the pandemic out of mind, at least while the weather is nice.

Patio season awaits the guest, but what awaits the workers?

For many restaurant workers this state of affairs means (if you were lucky enough to be gainfully unemployed during the last year) getting ready to find a job in what’s left of the industry.

For many restaurant workers this also means remembering how much this industry delights in kicking us in the teeth (hopefully not literally but we wouldn’t be surprised to hear from someone to whom this had happened, non-figuratively). 

Are there alternatives to being subjected to those same terrible, exploitative practices we’d all come to cope with pre-pandemic? 

In Washington, D.C., one major proposal currently being pushed for in the Senate is the Protect the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). 

If passed, the PRO Act would be the most sweeping reform of American labor law in nearly a century and provide desperately needed protections to anyone looking to organize. 

Or anyone who just wants the basic protections of an employer who can be held legally liable for blatant disregard for their workers rights.

That many people and organizations are pushing for this legislation is heartening and necessary. 

The truly absurd obstacles that companies are allowed to put in the way of would-be unionizers has been on full display in the failed Amazon warehouse drive in Bessemer, AL. 

It would be a historic win to tear those barriers down. 

But beyond the open question of passing such legislation in the current Senate (the PRO Act having already cleared the Democrat-controlled House) is the question of how any of this applies to us in the service industry. 

What passes for labor rights in the United States, defanged legislation that favors capital interests, however anemic in other industries, is nearly non-existent in the restaurant industry. 

We’ve all seen people without documentation bullied by the owners. 

Had tips stolen to cover some mistake by the GM. 

Been asked to clock out and keep working right when we are supposed to hit overtime. 

When it’s a struggle to get paid not even your fair share, but the amount you are supposedly legally, contractually, obliged to make, it becomes difficult to imagine the law showing up to defend you during your embryonic union drive.

Clearly we need to start small. 

To work on seeing each other with empathy, as fellow travelers, and a group with a common interest regardless of whether we work in a restaurant proper or deliver goods to and from the kitchen, or if our plans are to stay in the industry for a few months or a few decades. 

We need to start talking about what we like in this industry (flexibility, creativity, thinking we’re all cool punk renegade outcasts) and what we could do without (long hours, low pay, harassment and bullying, a community that romanticizes substance abuse).

Paradoxically, perhaps what we as restaurant workers need to do is look to things like the PRO Act or an actual end to COVID. 

To start realizing that situations can and do change even if it takes hard work. When we are asked to clock out and keep working, or when a manager is screaming, or our pay is stolen, we must see the small steps we take in standing up and saying this isn’t right, comforting a coworker or demanding an answer as us inching closer to a more just industry. 

To see these actions as building towards a shared future. 

Sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

But restaurant workers are a scrappy bunch.

We’ll just have to illuminate things ourselves. 

American donut, beauty friend: a pair of organizer interviews from Los Angeles

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.

Dignity in the Workplace: 10 Points 2 Remember

The Restaurant Organizing Project makes nationally-available materials that can be updated for local use. Our newest addition is a 10 Point Pamphlet for a Career with Dignity in the Service Industry: What a Union Could Mean for You.

Our hope is that this can be a tool for Restaurant Organizing Project members to get started, in any city, with however many members they currently have. The more service workers that know we exist, the more people will reach out when something comes up at work that they are ready to take action against. It’s a lot more official to hand someone something that they can look at right away instead of directing them to a zoom link or a Twitter account!

Some ideas for how to use this pamphlet:

  • Spread the word that we exist and that people can join us

Print them out, leave them around town, hand them out to people you’ve been talking to about organizing, set up a tabling in a neighborhood where there are lots of service industry workers.

  • Organize discussions about the content of the pamphlet

Do these demands speak to people? How can we grow our ranks so that we can win these demands for dignity? What questions do people need to learn how to answer about why we need unions and how we can organize to achieve them? 

  • Update the pamphlet to reflect your local work

Add your local contact information so that people can get directly in touch with you if they are looking to organize. Add a report from a local organizing success. Make it your own so that it matches what you are looking to do with it.

Tag us @dishragnews and @restaurandproj with updates on how you are using the pamphlet #10points1goal.

 

What the PRO Act could mean for restaurant workers

Heralded as the most sweeping labor legislation since the 1930s, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would expand various labor protections related to employees’ right to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace. The transformative bill aims to strengthen unions and the rights of those wishing to form unions.

Reintroduced in the House of Representatives in February 2021, after passing a year prior, it has inspired an outpouring of mobilization efforts aimed at flipping Senators in key states. And it’s not just labor-focused folks who are talking, the PRO Act has been covered by major news outlets across the country, sparking conversations around the water cooler, or in the walk-in, as it were. 

What’s most intriguing about the PRO Act is that many of the protections offered are not already in place: for example, you currently have no private right of action (you have to first go through the National Labor Review Board before you are allowed to sue), you can be forced to attend captive audience meetings, the NLRB is not allowed to levy fines and penalties against businesses, to name a few. The PRO Act aims to modernize the union election process as well. When we see the rights we don’t have spelled out as something we could have, it gives us a path to a more just workplace. 

Here are three aspects of the PRO Act that could potentially have a big impact for service industry workers: 

  1. Expanded supervisor definition: More people equals more power. The first obstacle in many collective bargaining efforts is low-level management; the PRO Act expands the definition of employee to include those that are “directing the work” of others (as long as it’s not the majority of their workday). By including supervisors in the definition of employers, someone like a shift lead or sous chef could potentially join your restaurant’s organizing efforts and eventually, union. 
  2. Secondary boycotts/strikes: There are many possibilities with this proposal. The law currently prevents unions from picketing, boycotting or striking against any employer not their own, such as vendors. For instance, if your restaurant was unionized and doing business with a vendor that is harassing their workers, you and your coworkers could picket outside the vendor’s establishment. This would give unionized workers immense power to exert pressure on businesses their restaurant interacts with, whether the other businesses workers are unionized or not. We would be able to tap into a wide network of support at each step in the proverbial food chain that makes up the restaurant industry. 
  3. Email ballots: One way to declare a union is through an election: a petition is filed with the NLRB; if the petition is approved, ballots are then sent out to all employees, who in turn fill them out and return them to be counted; if a majority of employees vote in favor, then the union is certified. The process is one fraught with tension, not only because the law currently favors the employer, but because the process itself is outdated. As with many issues in our industry, this has only been exacerbated by COVID. By providing the option to email ballots instead of requiring the use of mail-in or in-person ballots, it would considerably speed up the election process. It could also mean not giving out home addresses, which could endanger undocumented workers and exclude our unhoused coworkers. 

These are only a few provisions covered in the bill, and many (more comprehensive) articles have been written that go over it in more detail. Phrases like “joint-employer standard,” “NLRB,” and “concerted activity” aren’t phrases we necessarily encounter in our workaday lives. However, when we educate ourselves as laborers, we make ourselves into better organizers, and our fluency in basic labor law terminology will help us build a solid understanding of our rights. 

Even if the PRO Act passes, it will do nothing for us if we can’t organize ourselves. We need to build strong foundations in our workplace so we can take advantage of these potential protections. Let’s not limit ourselves by only thinking of the cooks and the servers, but the farm workers harvesting the crops, the vendors delivering the ingredients to us and the delivery drivers taking the food to the customer. When we include the entire restaurant ecosystem (and all the ways labor laws intersect with immigration and the environment) in our organizing, we create a vast network of solidarity that supports every worker. 

You make HOW MUCH an hour??

The fight for a nation-wide living wage stagnated in March 2021 when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that a $15 federal minimum wage hike couldn’t be part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s $1.9 stimulus package. Mainstream media outlets however, largely failed to report on the provision of the Raise The Wage Act that would have put an end to the lower federal minimum wage for tipped industries, which is a legacy of slavery and has been frozen at $2.13 per hour since 1991 (oh, and you can thank Herman Cain for that).

Currently, seven “equal treatment” states have already done away with the subminimum wage altogether (also sometimes called the tipped minimum wage or the “tip credit” for those wishing to make it sound like a rosy perk of the industry, which it certainly is…for employers). Despite the continued existence of both restaurants and tipping in all seven equal treatment states, the National Restaurant Association and its regional affiliates, various astroturf-y advocacy groups claiming to speak for all tipped workers, and many business-friendly media outlets take a hard stance against raising tipped workers’ wages. They vigorously defend a racist, sexist practice that is seen in no other industry in the US (though other employers would dearly love to use tips to subsidize wages, especially in the gig-economy). 


What follows is a quick breakdown of some of the most common, often bad faith, and sometimes completely dishonest talking points put forth in subminimum wage propaganda and, most importantly, how YOU can respond to them. As an industry we have to push back against this misinformation, educate our coworkers and demand better for our colleagues. This applies to any state that still pays us less than other workers, but especially in the 16 states where tipped workers still earn just $2.13 an hour. 

 

A common misconception — that propagandists are happy to encourage — is that raising the subminimum wage to the same level as the regular minimum wage would also eliminate tipping as a practice, thereby limiting service industry workers who might otherwise make much more per hour with tips. The NRA itself explicitly makes this claim in an official statement on the Raise The Wage Act and prominently presents the “tip credit” as being the same as “tipping” on it’s website. 

Let’s be real, real, real clear: The practice of tipping doesn’t disappear when you raise the tipped workers’ base pay. Anyone who’s ever dined out in California, Washington, Nevada, Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, and Oregon (also Guam!) could easily tell you this. And while some people do argue for abolishing tipping, and have done since it was first imported into the US as a practice, there is no current proposal to abolish tipping. Raising the subminimum wage would merely require employers to stop using customer tips to subsidize wages.

If a particular bartender, say, makes tons of money in tips, pulling down a couple hundo a night in a packed bar or high-priced, high-volume establishment — that’s great for them! They’re special! Very unusual in fact! So much so, that their high-earning experience cannot reasonably be taken as the norm, as most of their colleagues across a huge, diverse industry are experiencing much less security. That high-rolling mixologist the media love to interview is vastly outnumbered by employees at, say, Denny’s, Applebees, or IHOP. Compared to the national poverty rate for non-tipped workers (about 6%) tipped workers are twice as likely to be in poverty (12-13%), and in subminimum wage states the rate is almost three times as high for servers and bartenders (around 18%).

Our industry is disproportionately made up of women and people of color, and the gender and racial pay gaps shrink significantly in equal treatment states. When the media trots out a high-earning, white male bartender to paint a picture of the industry, it erases the majority of our coworkers. Maybe a posh New York City bartender doesn’t need the raise, but a mother of three working at a diner and living near poverty could use it, and I would like to hear from her.

You could talk to anyone you know who has worked in both submnimum and equal treatment states (like yours truly) and they will tell you, people tip the same! There’s always variation among customers but I’m here to tell you, in case you were unsure, overall people tip the same out here in California (where I’m making $13/hr) as they did when I worked in Washington, D.C. (where I made $3/hr). I just have a consistent paycheck now. 

But, since anecdotal evidence is weak and should be treated with suspicion (see talking point #2), we here at The Dish want to give you precious data to back it up! Servers and bartenders in equal treatment states make 17% more per hour (inclusive of tips) than tipped workers in $2.13/hr states. There’s no evidence that overall earnings decrease, or that tip percentages overall decrease when employers pay their workers a normal minimum wage. 

No one likes to see prices going up, especially since it’s what prices pretty much always do, almost without fail. But you can look at any national chain to see that the exact same business can operate successfully in equal treatment states without significant (or sometimes any!) changes in menu prices. In fact, Denny’s and McDonald’s have even come out and said as much; they’ll “do just fine.” 

An increase in some menu prices, which is likely, is also a reflection of the fact that they’ve been kept artificially low for yearsdecades in states still paying $2.13 plus tips. We would think it irresponsible if an employer was still paying someone the same dollar amount now as they were 30 years ago, but that’s what’s happened to tipped workers in subminimum wage states. A meal out shouldn’t be subsidized by the workers’ poverty. And if we allow wages to rise gradually in future, we won’t have to face this kind of steep increase again. 

This is a favorite, and relies on this tidbit of “conventional wisdom:” that if labor costs more, people will hire fewer people. But conventional wisdom is often wrong, and as The Atlantic points out “there is no obvious relationship between the minimum wage and unemployment.”  A very thorough study of decades of wage rises found that businesses adjusted to the new labor costs in various ways, like “reductions in labor turnover; improvements in organizational efficiency; reductions in wages of higher earners (“wage compression”); and small price increases.” Some of the widely-touted scary statistics on job losses make headlines, but wilt a bit under scrutiny

Debates about how higher wages kill jobs too often focus only on one side of the equation as well: the cost to the employer. But higher wages also create employees who can buy more, who can save more, keeping capital within their local economy (and their own industry in our case!). More workers who can afford to eat out at restaurants are good for restaurants and their workers.

Hopefully the arguments outlined above will help you and your co-workers look at the debate in new ways. We should all try to be aware of arguments we encounter in the media, and who we’re hearing them from! As potential organizers this can help us all learn how to respond to business owners, restaurant association groups, and maybe even our own coworkers when they insist that less than minimum is the best tipped workers can hope for. 

Taking the lid off disordered eating in the food industry

I would imagine that Family Meal looks about the same in most kitchens. For our kitchen, on any given shift, we would be eating a misfit mix of leftovers from events: stuffed mushrooms, baked beans, chicken piccata, bread pudding – anything that was en route to the dish pit had one last chance to be someone’s dinner.

Family Meal can be one of the few moments of peace and solidarity shared between staff. 

A calm before the storm. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, it can be an extremely isolating time of day.

Around 29 million members of the American population will be affected by an eating disorder at some point in their lives. 

The foodservice industry is home to 11.9 million employees, all made up of dedicated chefs, servers, dishwashers, and hosts. Who, despite the different demands of their individual jobs, work together to achieve a common goal: feeding copious amounts of patrons. 

It wasn’t until I had walked a mile or two in their non-slip shoes that it even occurred to me that eating disorders could be prevalent, in one form or another, in kitchens.

Kitchens are fast-paced, high-stress environments that subject the employees in them to unsociable, erratic hours, and back-breaking work. 

Oftentimes the employees that work in them do not pass through unscathed.

The skeleton-crew shifts, angry patrons and physical toll can lead to anxiety and depression in restaurant staff. 

These disorders typically go untreated due to foodservice workers not having access to healthcare. 

Most end up developing some sort of coping mechanism, if not multiple, to deal with their surroundings. 

For some, it’s alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, or even a caffeine dependency. For others, it may develop as an eating disorder. 

Is there an employee that shows up for their shift, moving through the Family Meal line and piles their plate high, binge eating their one guaranteed meal for the day? As some bus their dishes and head out to the back dock for a smoke break before the rush starts, is there one left behind who breaks away to purge? Or was there someone missing from the table altogether, still on their station prepping a menu item and effectively skipping a meal unnoticed?

These are all examples of the three most common eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. 

I was the chef that stayed on their station avoiding meal times. At first, this was only something I did due to my increasing workload after being promoted to a lead cook position. Eventually, even when my prep list for the day was short, I would find an excuse to avoid meal times.

Preparing, planning, and partaking in meals all became odious to me.

I began dissociating from the food that passed through my line.

I would only see meaningless molecules where most would see a delicious meal, no more appealing to me than an Excel spreadsheet. I was filled with an apathetic regard for food in the place where my appetite had been. My hours became longer, leaving little time for personal improvement like finding time for a workout, apart from putting stock away a few times a week. 

To offset this, I started trying different fad diets that I thought I could manage: fasting, paleo, gluten free, the list goes on. 

I would follow a very restrictive diet and when those very specific foods weren’t available, I would skip eating altogether. 

This led to me putting my body through brutal 12 plus+ hour shifts, without the fuel it needed to perform the way I was demanding. I began offsetting my days spent in hunger, with my evenings binging meals in private. At the height of my own personal struggle, I wasn’t conscious of the harm I was doing.

I hadn’t considered it would be classified an eating disorder. I thought I was unable to handle the demands of my job while balancing a life outside of the kitchen. As a young chef I didn’t want to risk appearing weak to my peers or superiors so I didn’t speak up. 

The old saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” so, I doubled down on my dedication to my craft, hoping I’d find a rhythm along the way. 

I never once considered that the low pay, exploitation, and impossible demands I was facing were the culprit. 

I thought that I was doing what was needed to be “healthy.”

Eating disorders are rarely unaccompanied and are often paired with an addiction, anxiety, or depression.  

Modern studies show that genetics and environment can cause an individual to develop an eating disorder. Someone could be born with a genetic predisposition to develop an eating disorder and a negative environment can be the cause that triggers it. 

Personality can play a large role in the likelihood of developing an eating disorder in one’s life. Common personality traits that are linked with eating disorders are impulsivity, shyness, nervousness, and perfectionism. 

Someone who is considered a perfectionist would likely be an asset as a chef, having high standards for themselves and their coworkers, demanding uniformity and the best for every plate. This trait, when pushed to extremes or exploited by a workplace, can come with a price for the individual that they are not ready to pay.

Can I get a “yes, chef”?

These coping mechanisms can develop out of a need to survive, but can end up having deadly consequences.

Eating disorders are a very serious and oftentimes fatal disease. They have one of the highest mortality rates of mental illnesses and claim a life every 52 minutes. 

Allison Lowe, a licensed professional counselor discussed what a treatment plan typically looks like for an individual who is struggling to overcome an eating disorder. 

She said it is recommended that the patient work closely with a team made up of a mental health professional, a registered dietician, their primary care doctor, and a support system of friends and family to develop a care plan specific to their needs and maintain it. 

For a restaurant employee seeking treatment this may seem impossible. 

With working odd, unsociable hours an employee may find it difficult to access a support system made of their friends and family. 

Only 1 out of 10 individuals who are diagnosed are able to receive treatment for an eating disorder.

Most treatments, whether inpatient or outpatient, cost thousands of dollars.  Healthcare may not be available to people working part time, without immigration documents, or without funds to meet co-pays and deductibles

It cannot be stressed enough how great the need for accessible and affordable healthcare is for the kitchens in our country. 

Eating disorders are just one of the many health issues that can affect restaurant employees, whose capital is confined to their physical body and the labor they are able to distribute from it. 

Food service employees who do not have access to healthcare are one accident or illness away from losing their ability to work, and, effectively, their wellbeing. 

While access to healthcare is paramount in treating disordered eating, there are other steps to take to ensure your healing process. 

Communicating to your leadership and coworkers that your recovery needs such as maintaining set mealtimes, access to personal food storage, avoiding environmental triggers all take precedence before the demands of the workplace are some ways to advocate for your healing in a food service environment.

There are also free support groups that are available to aid you in your recovery process.

It may even be in your best interest to step away from the industry altogether. 

There is an overall “cauterize your cut on the flat top” grit that is woven into the fabric of the kitchens, that is the root cause of employee exploitation that comes at the cost of the individual’s best interest, time and again.

The food service industry as a whole is in the weeds. 

Workers have put the very best they have to offer on the plate to be consumed – their youth, their health, their wellbeing, precious time spent away from loved ones – only to be given back the leftovers.

It is time to 86 what is no longer serving us and ring in a new future. 

It can start with taking small steps towards organizing in your workplace: like advocating for expanded access to healthcare, destigmatizing seeking help, and demanding more humane working conditions all could lead to the radically improved livelihoods of foodservice workers across the country.