History

Once Upon a Time, “Waitress” Was a Union Job. Could History Repeat Itself?

I have to believe it could.

A 1920s waitress stands between two crowded lunch counters of men in hats and women in fur coats.
A waitress stands in the middle of the counters during lunchtime at the Exchange Buffet in New York City in the 1920s. Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

It was August 2019, and while the Red Sox weren’t having the best season, every bar within walking distance of Fenway Park got absolutely crushed on game days: lines around the corner before we opened, lines three and four people deep on all sides, a service-ticket printer that ran nonstop. There would be a quick lull just after the first pitch that, depending on the home team’s performance and the day of the week, could stretch into the third or fourth inning, but there was always a second wave of insanity—sometimes a third—that could take us straight into last call. On Saturday nights, when the last tabs had been closed and the final guests had either left or been forcibly removed at 2 a.m., I would look at the dirty glassware lining the entire bar, the chaos of the drink-building wells, and the bottle of tequila my co-workers and I would absolutely finish before we clocked out, and try to do the math for how long it was going to take us to clean up.

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And then I’d wonder how in the holy hell I was going to be at my other job at 9 o’clock to open Sunday brunch.

I’d usually follow that with more tequila while stewing about how utterly insane it was that I needed two jobs to sustain myself financially, how it should be illegal to pay anyone—even those of us making good money in tips—less than $18 an hour in a city as expensive as Boston, and finally, how just 75 years ago, I wouldn’t have had to deal with any of this—at least not on my own: It was something my union rep would have taken care of.

It’s easy to be unaware of the organization history of servers and bartenders because, well, restaurant workers are seldom studied: As a group, we aren’t often taken very seriously, or at least haven’t been in the past 40 or so years. There was a time, however, when hospitality industry unions were some of the most powerful and robust labor organizations in the country.

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Unionization in the service industry is increasingly in the news today, as employees at Chipotle and several Starbucks locations, as well as Google’s cafeteria workers, have successfully organized and begun the work of negotiating contracts with their employers. It’s incredibly exciting to witness workers for these massive corporations organizing and collectively bargaining for increased wages and better working conditions. But it’s also important to recognize that this, much like the cocktail renaissance, isn’t a new development so much as a return to the deeply entrenched values and practices of what is now a different era. We aren’t so much fighting for something new as reconnecting with part of what was, not that long ago, the status quo.

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The first hospitality industry union formed in 1866, just after the end of the Civil War, and went by the name of the Bartenders and Waiters Union, Chicago. Later dubbed Chicago’s Local 57, the organization was largely made up of recent German immigrants. With the end of the Civil War came the development of the cross-country railway system, which drastically changed the hospitality industry. Before, American hotels and restaurants had been patronized by the odd band of travelers; after railway construction, they were mandatory, for both railroad workers and people taking advantage of new interstate mobility. By the 1890s, roughly a quarter of a million people were working in kitchens, bars, and hotels, and many of them were attempting to organize and join the newly formed American Federation of Labor, which today is the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S. In 1891, the Waiters and Bartenders National Union was approved and launched as a member of the AFL.

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Later called the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union, and then, finally, HERE, or the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, the organization started with 450 members and grew slowly. In 1899, membership had not passed 1,000, but by World War I, HERE membership was over 65,000. Prohibition once again knocked membership down as the entire hospitality industry was torn apart, but HERE nearly doubled its membership in 1933 when the Volstead Act was repealed, and had over 400,000 members by 1940. That number climbed by 15 million in the mid-1950s.

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A young waitress wearing an apron and holding a tray leans on a restaurant counter next to cakes and a silver coffee pot.
Delia Kane, 14 years old, at the Exchange Luncheon in Boston in 1917. Lewis Wickes Hine via Library of Congress
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The benefits of unionization were clear, and federally protected: The National Labor Relations Act was signed in 1935, codifying workers’ rights to organization, strikes, and collective bargaining. In an industry that is still often marked by 16-hour shifts, wage theft, and reports of sexual harassment, belonging to a union meant the possibility of having guaranteed minimum earnings, bargaining power, and protection. But, as historian Dorothy Sue Cobble wrote in her 1991 book Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century, in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, even as manufacturing workers gained protections, “the five-day, forty-hour work week remained a dream for most culinary workers.” Hospitality workers were explicitly excluded from the 1938 Federal Wage and Hour Law (it wasn’t until the early 1960s that a majority of restaurant workers were paid extra for anything over 40 hours). Even so, unionized bartenders and servers worked far fewer hours than those who were nonunion, and they had longer lunch breaks and received holiday pay. By 1960, nearly 100 percent of the 97,000 organized culinary workers in California received paid vacation.

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So, what happened? How did we go from nearly one-quarter of all hotel and restaurant employees being members of a union—receiving some benefits from organization, even if they weren’t eligible for certain protections—to the haphazard and controversial union organization going on in the hospitality industry today? Why are so many bar shifts 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.? Where are our paid vacation days?

In the heyday of the 1940s and ’50s, hospitality industry unions “called the shots because of their economic and political clout,” according to Cobble’s book. If a business tried to circumvent union standards or hire unaffiliated help, the affected local could, through strikes and boycotts, shutter that establishment in weeks. Once employers “adopted union standards and hired only union help,” however, “the union protected their business interests by attacking ‘unfair’ competition and by encouraging patronage of union houses.” Unionists were contracted to help stabilize business and “maintain the efficiency and profitability of the establishment where they worked.” Disputes between the unions and employers were rare because unionists “placed less emphasis on the protection of individual members and more on the mutual interests of the overall industry and the occupation.”

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By the 1980s, none of this mattered, and there are a few major factors to blame. When unions started to gain true power in the 1930s, there was, of course, backlash from those who would make less money by being contractually obligated to pay their employees a living wage. At the end of World War II, there was considerable recoil against organized labor as the U.S.
government settled into the conservatism of the McCarthy era. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 declawed many unions, regardless of their trade affiliation.

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In the restaurant industry, specifically, the power of organized labor declined as the nature of the country’s restaurants shifted from thousands of small, independent establishments into chain outlets. In Dishing It Out, Cobble writes that in 1931 “fewer than three percent of the nation’s restaurants were chain operated; in the 1980s, McDonald’s alone accounted for 17 percent of restaurant visits.” As soon as nonunion competition had a toehold, skepticism about the benefits of working with the unionists spread. Unorganized restaurants had lower labor costs and therefore higher profit margins. Once a few nonunion restaurants successfully established themselves in a community, they were all the proof restaurant owners under contract with unions needed that there was another, cheaper, way to operate.

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The final nail in the coffin of organized hospitality labor was the general cultural shift of postwar America. While part-time and temporary laborers had always made up a significant segment of service industry employees, by 1970, a majority of servers and bartenders worked on a part-time basis, up from about 1 in 8 in 1940. Technology played a part, as well, as a larger proportion of restaurants became focused on speed and convenience over personalized, interactive service. All these factors (and the grotesque power of the National Restaurant Association, which is another story altogether) combined to kill both the power of restaurant unions and the idea that working in hospitality can be a skilled trade. That feeds the idea that those of us working for tips in bars and restaurants don’t deserve improved working conditions and ought to just get a real job, already.

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But there’s hope: A majority of hotel employees are still unionized today (in 2004 HERE merged with UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, and exists today as UNITE HERE, a 300,000-member organization); there is growing interest in and a successful push for unionization in both chain and independent restaurants; and there are alternative-style labor organizations, collectives of workers and activists focused on enacting legislative change, that are working to secure the kinds of rights and protections that once required a traditional union contract.

“What’s happening right now, especially with a lot of younger workers, is that they’re being exposed not just to unions but to organizing and the idea of standing up for yourself, even if they wouldn’t even use the word ‘organizing,’ ” said Saru Jayaraman, who is co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United; current president of One Fair Wage, a national coalition of activists seeking to increase the minimum wage and end the tipped subminimum wage that still exists in a majority of states; and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s a lot of different forms of organizing going on right now,” she said, “and we really do ourselves a disservice by only looking at examples of unionization in the traditional model. Workers across the board are recognizing their worth.”

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The pandemic has certainly been a catalyst for the renewed interest in organized labor, particularly within the restaurant industry, because for so many of us, there’s little left to lose.

“For so long, the worst thing in people’s minds that could happen was losing your job. And then they did. Everybody lost their jobs in March of 2020, and they realized, ‘Wait—the worst thing I thought could ever happen just happened, and I’m still here. Maybe I could go do something else, maybe what I’d put up with for so long wasn’t something I should ever have put up with,’ ” Jayaraman said.

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The fight is happening via traditional organization as well. There has been successful unionization among restaurant workers in Austin, Texas, where on Aug. 5 workers at Via 313 pizzeria filed for a union election, the first step toward officially unionizing, and won, as did workers at Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis in August of 2020. Both these collectives have yet to move into the contract bargaining phase with their employers, but the process has begun.

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The farthest along in their journey are the employees of Colectivo, a chain of cafés and coffee roasters in Wisconsin and Illinois. Their fight began two years ago in response to what they described as a lack of safety protocols and consideration for staff during the pandemic, and they are now at the table negotiating their first contract with their employers. The unionized baristas, café workers, and warehouse employees are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494 and Local 1220, the electrical workers unions of Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Illinois.

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“We’re willing to sit down with anyone who is interested in learning to unionize,” said John Jacobs, assistant business manager with Local 494. “On the surface it’s like, how does that work—the electrical industry and coffee?” he said, which was exactly my question. But the IBEW covers a lot more than construction; there are a lot of different facets of electrical work. Ultimately, like most unions, the brotherhood’s focus is on working conditions, and their expertise is in negotiating contracts. “These folks did not like where the company was going in forcing them to come into work during the pandemic and the staff’s needs were not being listened to. That’s the work we do,” Jacobs said.

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Ryan Coffel, a Colectivo barista and union organizer with IBEW Local 1220, said it has been a symbiotic and collaborative relationship from the start, industry differences aside.

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“From the start, IBEW just said ‘Yes, all right, what can we do?’ We’ve learned how to do this in the café environment, which is pretty different from showing up at construction jobsites, and it’s working,” Coffel said.

The Colectivo union started in secret, first over Zoom calls and in private social media groups, but soon spilled over into in-person, on-the-job organizing—workers talking to co-workers and picking up shifts at different café locations to spread the word. When the vote to unionize passed in 2021, an estimated 400 to 450 Colectivo employees joined the IBEW.

“The thing that makes organizing in the service industry so difficult is feeling like it’s not possible,” Coffel said. “The biggest hurdle to get over is just the anxiety of reaching out to organizations. Call any labor organization. They want to help you, too.”

We may never return to a time when one nationally recognized union represents the rights and interests of restaurant workers, but maybe that’s OK. If I die on a hill, it will be while screaming about how being a bartender or a server is one of the most real jobs you can ever work; how $15 an hour plus at least 20 percent in tips is honestly the only fair wage for this kind of work today; how if you don’t plan to pay your kitchen staff $30 an hour you probably shouldn’t open a restaurant. It is frustrating, to be sure, but it’s becoming less so, because thanks to the work being done by the Starbucks 7, the Colectivo workers, IBEW Local 494  and Local 1220, One Fair Wage, the Restaurant Organizing Project, Restaurant Workers United, and the hundreds of workers out there organizing on every level, I know there are people on that hill with me, in solidarity.

This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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