What Can A Post-Pandemic World Look Like For Restaurant Workers?

Photo: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images.
The future of restaurants might be uncertain, but it’s clear that a return to the same old treatment of their cooks, servers, bussers, bartenders, and baristas won’t stand in a post-pandemic world. Before the mass layoffs of workers in the U.S. hospitality industry began last month, the biggest story in foodservice labor rights was the fight for unionization at San Francisco’s Tartine. Nationwide attention for the efforts at the bakery’s San Francisco and Berkeley locations inspired questions about whether this could be the future of hospitality. 
Now, though, the questions aren’t hypothetical, as every issue that has plagued the industry’s 15.6 million employees has been brought to the fore: The widespread lack of employer-provided health insurance, low and stagnant wages, no paid time off, and no protections for undocumented workers—the pandemic has laid bare the struggles that face a workforce that the rest of the nation relies on at every point of the day, from morning coffee to mid-day salads to evening drinks. The median salary for a full-time restaurant worker is $21,801, and the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 hasn’t gone up since 1991; the federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn’t increased since 2009. 
In the immediate aftermath of restaurant shutdowns, many chefs wondered—mainly on Twitter and in the New York Times—whether the government would step in to save their businesses, and by proxy their workers’ livelihoods, but David Chang of Momofuku couldn’t even say with certainty whether the staff of his 15 restaurants around the world had health insurance or enough money for food on their table. Independent restaurants and food businesses without investors operate on razor-thin margins in the best of times, and the government regulations that would make that a more livable scenario include Medicare for All (in the U.S.), strict limits on rent costs, higher hourly wages, and mandated paid time off. None of this is addressed in an opinion piece written by six New York City chefs. Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen, who has long had a no-tipping policy that allows for more transparent pricing and employee pay, addressed some of the deeper issues in the structure of restaurants, but ultimately placed much of the responsibility on consumers to pay more for food.
Tartine has not been the first nor will it be the last food industry team to seek unionization. Their team itself was inspired by their neighbors Anchor Steam Brewing, who joined the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 2019 (the same union with which Tartine is organizing) after their brewery began to cut back on benefits, from the amount of time allotted for lunch to slashed health benefits, and was bought by Japanese brand Sapporo. Bacchanal, a wine bar in New Orleans, went through a protracted and ultimately unsuccessful union battle in 2017. In the days when dining was more formal and going out for a meal was less commonplace, restaurant unions were the norm because the jobs were understood to be career-long. It’s less common now for foodservice workers outside of hotels, stadiums, and larger catering operations to be unionized. These jobs are treated as temporary and are often part-time, considered “unskilled labor” — an absolute misnomer. Because of the widespread tipping practice in the U.S., many of these jobs require a high level of emotional labor despite this payment structure being a ripe foundation for race, class, and gender discrimination.
At Tartine, the effort for unionization seeks, ultimately, more transparency between ownership and workers. The brand has undergone a lot of expansion since its debut in San Francisco in 2002, opening up shop in South Korea and moving its offices to Los Angeles. That has, according to one of the union’s organizers and Tartine Berkeley worker Matthew Torres, led to a lack of contact between workers and ownership and an overall more corporate atmosphere for the bakery’s roughly 215 employees. It was in April of 2019 that conversations about unionization began to happen, and they reached out to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) labor committee to discuss their options. In that time, Tartine’s locations in the Bay Area continued to experience the normal turnover seen in the hospitality industry, which Torres characterizes as a six-month period: starting, being disillusioned with the treatment by management, and then moving on to somewhere else. He’d like to see better quality jobs that change the pattern.
But Torres has been with Tartine for a couple of years, starting out at the Manufactory and then moving over when the Berkeley location opened. At first, despite wanting to focus on being a barista, he enjoyed the “try anything” atmosphere of being able to hop on the line to cook or try out pastry. When that changed with the introduction of a new general manager, it became clear to workers that they were no longer getting the support they needed to grow into new positions and were not being sustained by the wages, especially because the rents in the city are so high, pushing people further out of the metropolitan area to endure longer commutes. 
“I believe hospitality is a career job,” says Torres. “I know people who’ve worked in hospitality for 20, 30 years who are still doing it but at the same pay rate—or the same pay rate with inflation—that they were at a decade ago, 15 years ago.”
Ownership hasn’t been amenable to the unionization effort at Tartine, with co-founder Liz Pruiett telling the San Francisco Chronicle that while she’s usually pro-union, she does not support the concept for her own company. She also said that the locations outside San Francisco are funded by outside investment, thus their profits shouldn’t impact conditions for those working at Tartine locations in the Bay. She and co-founder Chad Robertson had wearable anti-union merchandise made, as well, and staff has said that they were forced to go to mandatory union-busting meetings while ownership hired Cruz & Associates’ union-avoidance agency, which has charged other companies six-figure sums for their services.

Tartine Berkely’s unionization vote passed 18–0, but the San Francisco locations’ vote must go before the National Labor Relations Board owing to 24 contested ballots. Regardless of how the case ultimately goes, the stakes for labor rights have been raised on a national scale.
The last time a movement of this sort received so much attention was 2012’s One Fair Wage movement organized by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which saw strikes of fast-food workers around the country seeking higher hourly pay. One Fair Wage is credited with rises in the minimum wage around the U.S., as well as setting off the spark of conversation that has led to the current moment, where we see Amazon and Instacart workers on strike for safe conditions during the Coronavirus epidemic, as well as recent strikes at Stop & Shop
One specific and unique difficulty of the current crisis versus past moments of industry upheaval is the lack of contact between workers. There is no way to strike en masse when one’s workplaces are closed, and the forced financial deprivation by employers and the government’s inaction regarding rent, health care, and other bill suspensions will bring everyone back to work when quarantine and shelter in place orders are (hopefully) lifted in such dire and desperate straits that any income will be sought eagerly. Still, one hopes that even under such conditions, the environment will still be ripe for continued worker action in hospitality.
This recent stirring of labor rights energy, putting the livelihoods of workers at the fore, has been one small bright spot in this global crisis. When every job, at every café and restaurant and beyond, is revealed as precarious, with any benefits dependent on the health of a fragile economy, workers realize their solidarity. There have been sparks, and soon there may be a fire.

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