Skip to content Skip to footer

Dying to Serve? A Restaurant Worker’s Plea for Organizing

Article published:
A solitary worker in a mask and apron wipes down a restaurant counter, though the sign on the door says “open for business.”

Frustration and solidarity have grown side-by-side as restaurant workers struggle in the pandemic. The time is right to organize.

I am sitting at my desk on December 18, 2021, although it’s the Saturday before Christmas and I should be at work. The holiday season is one of the most lucrative times of the year for a server, one that many of us had been looking forward to since our post-summer slowdown. But these are not normal times. The Omicron variant has descended upon New York just in time to squash any remaining holiday cheer and financial hope. The book at my restaurant, which just three days ago stood at 120 covers, has seen 114 cancellations in the last 24 hours. Unfortunately, it was my turn to take the cut and say goodbye to what would have been a $400 night.

The shift has been rapid, ruthless, and unexpected in a city that has been doing all it could to stave off this disease. Catching COVID-19 feels all but inevitable at this point, yet getting sick has dropped to the bottom of my coworkers’ and my list of concerns. As we stare down three months of winter, with no relief in sight we wonder, what is to become of us? How can a nation so rich leave so many out in the cold? And as the industry begs for guidance, will anyone finally seize the opportunity to create an equitable plan forward?

Traditionally, restaurant workers have been perceived as difficult to organize. While the industry employs more than 15 million people, the bulk of workers are not concentrated in large facilities. This could make cultivating a sense of collective consciousness and militancy, a vital factor during the height of labor’s power in the 1940s and ‘50s, more difficult.

‘Yet the conditions the industry continues to suffer due to COVID-19 have provided us with a sense of collectivity that may otherwise have remained inconceivable.’

Another stigma tied to restaurant organizing stems from the belief that employment within the sector has historically been transient—that restaurants offered temporary jobs for teenagers and young adults or places to land for those needing income in between “adequate” employment.

Your inbox needs more left. Sign up for our newsletter.

Just two years ago, I would have described myself as one of those temporary workers, caught up in the industry while I “figured out my life.” I knew restaurant employment was precarious and that I could be replaced at any moment, but I felt empowered by the fact that my employer was replaceable too.

All that changed in March 2020. When the world shut down overnight, I felt a sense of fear and neglect that I had never known before. The privilege I held as a white woman in the U.S. suddenly meant a lot less. Our futures all relied on the same dilapidated unemployment website, while fears of probable infection from our final week of exposure only compounded our shared anxieties. 

Anger trumped fear

As quarantine went on and we were called back to work that summer, frustration and anger overtook fear as we all realized we were about to be sacrificed for the good of the economy.

Thrust back onto the front lines, sans health insurance, hazard pay, proper personal protective equipment or vaccines, we felt like lab rats in a dangerous experiment.

No one was clapping for us at 7 pm or advocating for us in Congress. And why should they? We were not saving lives—just sacrificing our own. There was a time when we were the only people in New York City that it was legal to speak to without a mask. We were getting sick and being let go for missing shifts. Our sole purpose was to bring a sense of normalcy to those who had the luxury of working from home. We became invisible behind our masks. A truly disposable workforce.

As the summer continued, I witnessed class distinction in a way I never had before. Most customers at my Prospect Heights restaurant were presumably “liberal”-leaning Democrats, yet they did not have any problem breaking the bare minimum COVID protocols that had been put in place to keep waitstaff safe.

We were what Karl Marx called the “class of laborers, who live(d) only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” We were selling ourselves like commodities. We moved about the restaurant in one body, PPE masking our humanity. Online menus and electronic ordering replaced our skills and the guests made sure to reflect this shift in our tips. But collectively, our eyes were opened. Our community grew to include waitstaff from other restaurants, commiserating over our current conditions.

Solidarity grows

Engaging with past coworkers, we compared how other establishments were handling the crisis. Instagram became an important space to watch for engaging in actions, seeking relief and connecting with organizations that sought legislative measures for our health, safety, and welfare. We helped each other with unemployment claims and rent payments. We brought food and medicine to those who got sick, and offered up our shifts to them when they returned. We were no longer artists, actors, cooks, and freelancers: we were all restaurant workers, trying to survive.

Last winter, many employees were still eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits. As unvaccinated workers, we hoped each day for a shutdown to keep us safe until preventative medical options became available. Quitting was not an option as it meant the possibility of losing your unemployment in the event of a shutdown. Back then we were trapped in dangerous jobs, our health and economic status held in the hands of our employers and the government.

While this current turn of events feels eerily similar, much has changed. For one, we know more about the virus and have all met vaccination requirements demanded of us by the law. There does not seem to be any relief anticipated for the industry, and as it stands now, many of us have already run out our legal amount of unemployment due to last winter’s shutdowns. Most of us have no benefits tied to our jobs. We are making no money with the sudden drop in business, and some of my coworkers have begun to get audited on their unemployment claims from 2020.

‘We are ready to walk out’

Omicron has reinvigorated our resolve to change. We are ready to fight, but we need leadership and education. The transient nature of the industry could be looked at as a positive condition of our employment, one that can be harnessed by the right people to generate huge actions throughout neighborhoods, cities, and states. With the shift to online communication, the opportunities to connect are more accessible and far-reaching than ever before.

My co-workers and I didn’t know about the rights guaranteed to us under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Yet we are now desperate for information to protect ourselves so we can seize this momentum by activating strikes, with leaders who are able to control the narrative and direct mass actions across the city and the whole country.

Learning from the civil rights tradition

In the summer of 2020, we saw what people were capable of when desperation overcame fear. The Black Lives Matter movement shook us out of our COVID paranoia. We poured onto the streets, walked out of our jobs, and stood tall against armored tanks and the National Guard, tear gas and rubber bullets. In fact, I was at work when I witnessed the police run over protestors on Flatbush Avenue, a surreal moment played on national news, with my restaurant right in the background.

 The racial justice uprisings led us to think about the power of worker organizing that drew on the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, on tactics undertaken by those not represented by traditional methods nor supported by institutional law. Among these: the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, and the organizing efforts of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). Members of DRUM took matters into their own hands, circumnavigating the union and flexing their majority by threatening to shut down production if over 3,000 Black workers refused to work. Restaurant workers have power in numbers, but we need connections across many workplaces if we are going to have a chance of inciting impactful action.

Restructuring our industry

COVID-19 has only exacerbated longstanding cracks in the hospitality industry. We understand that the tipped wage system is steeped in racism, and unviable in the face of industry-wide disasters such as the pandemic. It is also responsible for the vast inequity in compensation between the front and back of the house—the tipped workers who interact directly with the public, and the regular wage workers like dishwashers and cooks who do not.

Many “progressive” restauranteurs have moved to eliminate tipping all together, a move that may seem noble and selfless to the public, who don’t understand the context of the industry. Yet moving to an hourly wage system has the potential to cut many front-of-house employees’ incomes in half, forcing them to take on overtime to be able to pay for necessities such as rent and food. The repercussions would be great; the restructuring of the industry is complicated and the narrative around it is currently being controlled by the wrong people. If those at the top are sincere about fixing these disparities, they must include engagement from the bottom to establish fair, enduring solutions.

Many restaurant workers are up for the challenge and ready to collaborate. Teamwork comes instinctively to workers who pool tips, a system that forces us to labor collectively to ensure a high tip average, which we then split equitably at the end of the shift.

Furthermore, today’s workers are notably the most educated generation to enter the workforce. We are all too aware of our lack of autonomy and the ever-growing wealth gap capitalism has created. Technology allows us to see how well workers in other countries can be treated, and how the U.S. has provided its citizens with far less pandemic support.

Beyond the shop floor

Our demands stretch beyond the shop floor because we have been deprived of basic human rights: healthcare, housing, education, and food. At the restaurant, we cannot even demand change from our employers, who have themselves been brought to their knees by COVID-19. They too have joined our chants for widespread structural change in the industry. They are hemorrhaging money in an industry with historically razor-thin margins. They can barely afford to keep the heaters running outside let alone provide us with higher wages.

Customers too are unsure of what to do. Should they go out and support their neighborhood restaurants, or does that contribute to the spread of disease? Many are beginning to question their role as the true employers of tipped wage workers.

Last night, my manager walked up to me and said, “I’m sorry, Sam. I don’t think we’re going to need you tomorrow…What are we going to do? What are we supposed to do?” A positive, upbeat guy in his late twenties who rarely shows his emotions, he looked at me like he was about to break down right there at the end of the bar, in the middle of service.

He then told me he had not received his booster yet, because for the last two months he had been experiencing concerning swelling in the glands under his arms. His fear was palpable as he explained to me how he wanted to get it checked out before receiving another vaccine dose, but he did not have health insurance. Now, without his booster, he found himself compromised in the face of Omicron, a strain that has infected half our vaccinated staff in the last week. This is where we are in the restaurant industry. This is where we are in America. Not even our bosses are able to obtain an acceptable quality of life.

Postscript: Organizing in the restaurant industry

In 2016, the singing servers at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York City decided to unionize as Stardust Family United, a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. The restaurant agreed to recognize the union more than a year later, rather than face trial for around 19 violations of labor law. Photo from Stardust Family United.

By Stephanie Luce

The restaurant industry in the U.S. has historically had low rates of unionization, but there are exceptions. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union represented waitresses in cities around the country for many decades, but due to union-busting, the spread of national restaurant chains and internal differences over strategy, restaurant union density fell drastically in the 1970s and ‘80s. Still, some restaurants remain unionized today, including high-end establishments like the Rainbow Room, which is represented by the Hotel Trades Council in New York City. In 2016 workers at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York City organized with the Industrial Workers of the World, and workers helped each other survive the pandemic.  And while not a restaurant, the recent union victories at Starbucks suggests that food service industry workers can still successfully unionize, even at a large corporation.

Workers have also built workers centers to support restaurant industry employees. One of the first workers centers, Chinese Staff and Workers Association, was formed in 1979 by restaurant workers in New York City. They have fought for unpaid back wages, fought gentrification in Chinatown, and helped workers at the Silver Palace restaurant form an independent union.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was founded after 9/11 to help those workers impacted by the tragedy. The organization is now national and has lobbied for a range of legislation that would improve conditions for workers. They have conducted research showing pervasive sexual harassment in the industry and subsequently worked with legislators to introduce legislation penalizing harassment. They have also been at the forefront of working to eliminate the tipped wage system, which grew out of racist origins and has discriminatory impacts even today.

ROC has worked with some restaurant owners to improve working conditions. For example, Danny Meyer, one of the country’s best-known restaurateurs at the helm of Union Square Hospitality Group, attempted to eliminate tipping back in 2015. But as Samantha Ferraro notes, many seasoned servers would never agree to work for the no-tip models, preferring a lower base pay which is padded by tips accounting for an additional $60+ per hour. And in either model, restaurant workers depend on customers to make a living. This became a serious problem during the pandemic when the number of customers dropped dramatically. Danny Meyer suspended the no-tip practice in his restaurants in July 2020, reasoning, “We don’t know how often people will be eating out, we don’t know what they are willing to pay…We do know that guests want to tip generously right now.”

Even before the pandemic the restaurant industry was vulnerable to booms and busts, completely dependent on customer spending. One way to smooth out the risks for workers (and small restaurant owners) would be a universal basic income (UBI). Several countries and cities have tried out versions of the UBI, including a recent modified effort in Stockton, California. Most research finds the UBI has positive impacts on workers’ well-being, including reducing income instability and poverty, as well as decreasing anxiety and depression.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has a national Restaurant Organizing Project that has helped support unemployed restaurant workers throughout the pandemic. The aim is to organize workers in the industry to reshape it in the long run.





Referenced Organizations

About the Author