Nona Willis Aronowitz has a good article in the latest issue of GOOD about young, frustrated restaurant employees trying to organize. In a generally shitty and abusive service sector, restaurants stand out as particularly exploitative; half of all workers making below minimum wage work at restaurants, with the burden falling especially hard on women. Yet despite that, Aronowitz writes, a lot of younger restaurant workers are reluctant to support unionization efforts:
Activists like Erik face a two-pronged problem: Middle-class kids don’t want to bother with unions because they have one eye on the door. Workers from the permanent underclass like Levi don’t join because they accept that these jobs are shitty, and if they’re fired, they’ll just have to go get another one. It happens all the time—Levi lost his job this fall, for reasons having nothing to do with the union. Turnover is what the industry depends on.
The problem with middle class kids strikes me as one of education: like students in unpaid internships, it seems like white-collar hopefuls seeking temporary restaurant labor have no recognition of themselves as part of a broader worker class, and don’t see how the exploitation in the restaurant industry can distort the entire labor market. Efforts like the Wobblies’ admittedly sort of quixotic Starbucks campaign (which Aronowitz shouts out in her article) are encouraging because they provide a vehicle for raising these issues.
Levi’s problem is not one of education. As a member of the permanent underclass, he’s better informed about the structural violence of the restaurant industry than those middle class kids. But he also recognizes that, if he openly supports the union, he’ll be fired and pushed into (at best) an identical job at another restaurant. In part this is because what’s left of the social safety net is structured, as I’ve written before, to force people into whatever work is available. In part it’s because modern labor election law is firmly on the side of employers. Levi may have the formal right to organize within his workplace, but that doesn’t mean his boss can’t fire him for whatever other reason — and if he takes up what smells like a wrongful termination with the NLRB, there’s virtually no chance they’ll move fast enough for even a positive ruling to make a difference.
So the remedy, if it exists, is a holistic one: education and organizing, a restructured and reinvigorated welfare state, and strengthened worker protections in labor law. But in addition to that, I wonder if any attempt at restaurant organizing doesn’t need to be an industry-wide effort, with UNITE HERE’s modern hotel organizing work serving as a model.
I’m still a labor neophyte — one who’s also still working out his own feelings on this stuff — so on that question I’ll defer to any more experienced movement hands who want to weigh in. But for now, an industry-wide restaurant organizing push is almost surely a pipe dream — a lot is going to have to change before that becomes conceivable.