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Unions are gaining strength in restaurants. They’ve been here before.


The food and beverage industry has one of the lowest unionization rates in the United States – 3.4% of workers last year, compared to the overall rate of almost 10.8%. But workers at some high-profile stores are hoping to narrow that gap and have tried to organize at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco; Voodoo Donut in Portland, Oregon; and, most recently, a group of Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York.

While this may seem like a new movement, organized labor in the industry dates back to 1891, when the first restaurant union – now called Unite Here – was formed.

“It was a different world, especially when we entered the turn of the 20th century,” said David Whitford, historian at Unite Here.

A union promotional video shot at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in the 1950s.

When American industry was strong, so were manufacturing unions. And it had a ripple effect.

“If you owned a bar or restaurant in a small town in the Midwest where there was some sort of union factory and you wanted union workers to come and patronize your establishment, then you had to be a union restaurant as well,” said Whitford.

Communities organized “sip-ins” at non-union restaurants, with activists lingering over a single cup of coffee as an act of protest. Unionized bars and restaurants hung signs on their windows as badges of honor. Customers viewed these signs as signals that the quality would be higher.

“So it felt like if you had a union cook you would have better food. If you had a union server, you were going to get better service, ”said Dorothy Sue Cobble, author of“ Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century ”.

Catering unions were so common that membership was transferable. Workers took their benefits with them from job to job. The unions have not only benefited workers either. Employers turned to unions for hiring, human resource issues and even scheduling when someone was sick.

In the 1950s, almost a third of workers in the private sector belonged to a union. But, remember how many more restaurant workers unionized as manufacturing expanded? The opposite was also true.

When manufacturing declined, unionization in restaurants also declined. Labor laws written in the 1930s were primarily created to protect factory workers, Cobble said. And on the other hand, “there were also provisions in these laws that made it more difficult to organize non-factory workers, especially in small industries where there are small employers and high turnover.”

During this time, the restaurant industry was changing drastically. Chains with the money and power to fight the organization have become neighborhood staples, and cheap fast food has proliferated. Union membership rates in restaurants have plummeted. Salaries have fallen and benefits have mostly disappeared.

In recent years, however, the momentum to organize has grown. Union membership rates increased slightly over the past year. Public support for unions has been at the highest level in nearly two decades, with two-thirds of Americans approving them, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Cobble believes the pandemic could push the trend even further. “There has been tremendous stress on frontline and service workers, so there is a real desire for change,” she said.

Midwestern chain Colectivo Coffee recently became the largest coffeehouse company in the United States to unionize, with approximately 450 eligible employees.

“I think the momentum has really grown with COVID, like people saying, ‘This has been a problem for a while, but it only brought it to light,'” said Zoe Muellner, the one of the organizers.

It was not easy and took years as workers had to coordinate at 20 sites and deal with staff turnover. The union won by seven votes. Since Colectivo workers organized, Muellner said, other cafe workers across the country have called for advice on how to do the same.

“You keep hearing things like, ‘Well that’s just the service industry. If you don’t want things to be like this, find another job. And so I think that’s something people are seeing now, “Oh, there are a lot less people willing to work in the service industry. They get different jobs, ”she said.


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Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement