There are over 12 million people working in American restaurants. That’s more than 2.2 million servers, 1.7 million cooks, 779,000 supervisors, and another 3.2 million people employed in combined food-prep and food-service jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They’re employed in all types of establishments—fast-food and full-service, institutional cafeterias, catering kitchens, and bars.
Yet only 1.3 percent of them are union members—which puts restaurants in a dead heat with the finance industry for the lowest unionization rate of any sector. Labor statistics show that number hasn’t changed much over the last 20 years.
You’d think, given the role that the labor movement played in lifting the working poor out of poverty, that unions would be more popular in restaurants today. We’re living in an era when income inequality and fair labor are a persistent part of the political conversation. And restaurant work—and the toll it can take on people—has gotten a good bit of airtime from a particular freshman congresswoman.
Before she was elected to Congress during the 2018 mid-term election, now-Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender in New York City, a job she has credited with honing her “razor-sharp BS detector.” After her election, some opined that she would be an advocate for other bartenders—along with cooks, dishwashers, servers, and bussers—because she understands first-hand the labor protections they lack.
Ocasio-Cortez has backed legislation to mandate equal pay for women, who comprise more than half of the service industry. She’s pushing Medicare for All, a move that could resonate with the 85 percent of restaurant employees whose bosses don’t offer health insurance. Even her calls to abolish ICE have an angle: One-third of food-service workers are undocumented. “For me what’s important is to value the hands that go into your food,” she told Bon Appétit. “All of them.”
Broadly speaking, Ocasio-Cortez is just one of numerous Democrats taking on the issue of fair labor, both through treatises like the Green New Deal, and through party platforms like the Raise the Wage Act. The latter proposes to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and eliminate the subminimum wage for waiters. If it passes, the bill could improve the lives of millions living below the federal poverty threshold—an income of $25,750 for a family of four. Many of these Americans are employed in restaurants. It has over 200 co-sponsors in the House, and in the Senate, it’s backed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and plenty of other Democrats.
This very public push for higher wages and better job conditions didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s part of an ongoing effort that emerged from the Fight For $15 movement, which is backed by the nearly two million-strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The movement began in 2012, as a series of one-day strikes held by fast-food workers in New York, Chicago, and then in other cities across the country. Eventually, low-wage earners in airports and universities, home-health aides, and others, joined the cause. Since that time, SEIU claims, 24 million people have received $70 billion in raises.
Indeed, as that demand has made its way from city streets to the halls of Congress, it appears that labor, as a movement, is enjoying a resurgence in Democratic politics. Of course, for decades, labor’s support—or lack thereof—has won and lost elections for candidates in both parties. Campaign stops at union halls and conventions are par for the political course. But two senators who have already announced their candidacy for president have explicitly cited unions as a way to improve peoples’ lives.
Sanders, specifically, has made labor solidarity a campaign theme. “It’s not good enough for candidates to say they like workers or the middle class. We need to specifically and explicitly support trade unions,” he said at a Las Vegas campaign stop earlier this month. Warren, meanwhile, launched her campaign at Everett Mills, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where, nearly 100 years ago, tens of thousands of textile workers walked off the job to protest pay cuts. Like Sanders, she’s called to make it easier to unionize. More recently, she walked a picket line in Somerville with striking Stop & Shop employees. For that matter, so has recently-announced candidate for president, Joe Biden.
If I’d written this story 50 years ago, I’d have started by writing about the “food service and drinking places” of the time, which were far less varied. Back then, according to labor experts, unions captured a much larger share of the industry. This can largely be attributed to the simple reasons that dining out was simpler, fewer people did it on a regular basis, and the industry itself was smaller.
In 1963, Americans spent less than 30 percent of their food expenditures away from home. Now it’s more than half. Dining out is more prismatic today. To wit: The National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group, tracks a dozen different dining categories. Its members run full-service (family, casual, fine dining), and limited-service (“quick service,” fast casual, cafés, snack bars) establishments. They operate institutional cafeterias, buffets, caterers, bars, and food trucks.
More than any other category, labor historians say, fast food has watered down union concentration in the dining industry. After World War II, McDonald’s and other chains proliferated throughout the suburbs, bringing in scores of teenagers looking for temporary or part-time jobs. Now it’s fast food, and in particular McDonald’s—now among the country’s largest employers—that are being targeted by the movement.
How so? First and foremost, SEIU is trying to raise their wages. “The fast-food protests,” as Fight For $15 was once known, were borne of the reality that fast-food employees are increasingly adults with families to feed. Supporting that effort may prove to be a savvy organizing strategy, in part because higher wages reduce turnover, which is a major obstacle for the labor movement.
SEIU has also taken McDonald’s to court for a slew of unfair labor practices. After franchisees fired employees who joined the protests, the union helped file dozens of claims alleging illegal retaliation. And it supported class-action lawsuits for unpaid overtime and coordinated sexual harassment complaints. Why’s that important? Because if the fast-food giant acknowledges, in court, that it’s legally responsible for workers, then it could be compelled to bargain with them, too.
Like many fast-food companies, McDonald’s operates on a franchise model. Ninety-two percent of its 37,400 worldwide stores are run by independent operators, with their own limited liability corporations. For a licensing fee, which allows them to use the brand, these operators are allowed to open their store. Obviously, McDonald’s is far from the only franchise-focused chain. According to Entrepreneur, 91 percent of 6,900 Taco Bells are franchises. So are 97 percent of 20,775 KFCs, and 99 percent of 15,420 Pizza Huts. Every single Dunkin Donuts is a franchise, too.
During President Obama’s time in office, corporations and franchisees were considered “joint employers,” with a legal obligation to collectively bargain. That changed after Donald Trump was elected. His labor board narrowed the definition of a joint employer, effectively letting the corporations off the hook for how franchisees treat their employees. The Golden Arches is now moving to settle those SEIU-supported lawsuits out of court.
Trump’s labor board now wants to make the narrower definition permanent, which would deal a potentially crushing blow to unions. It’s hard to extract better job conditions from franchisees if their bosses—the corporations—aren’t compelled to be at the bargaining table, too. As Catherine Fisk explains, it’s theoretically possible to convince a franchisee to pay their employees more. But the higher labor costs would result in fewer workers on the floor at a time, or cut into profit margins. Either case could breach a contract with a corporation, who could order the franchisee to close the store. Negotiation over.
Plus, union economics makes the prospect of organizing the fast-food sector store by store, tens of thousands of times over, a daunting one. Erik Forman, a former Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer, points out that starting unions is a job, too, and typically it’s paid by member dues. Several years ago, he tried to organize a string of Jimmy John’s franchises in Minnesota. The drive failed, barely. Even if he’d succeeded, and wages rose to $10 an hour for 200 part-time cooks and cashiers, the 1-percent dues wouldn’t have brought in enough to pay his salary.
Practical obstacles make fast food unionization a long shot. But what about finer dining, in some of the country’s most celebrated restaurant cities?
In New York City, for example, it’s entirely possible for a server to make a middle-class living in a fine-dining establishment, because tips can be a significant income source. But generally speaking, those above-average earnings challenge labor’s ability to make inroads. There’s a point when the financial rewards outweigh the job’s drawbacks—like poor scheduling or no health insurance. It’s an irony of organizing that poor working conditions, and the resulting turnover, make it harder to form unions, while decent jobs create a lack of interest.
That appears to be the case for the hundreds of employees of Union Square Hospitality Group, founded by New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer. It’s not unheard of for servers at one of his trattorias to bring home $1,000 in cash on Saturday night. But as is the case in many restaurants, the stellar front-of-house earnings create a divide between servers and back-of-house cooks and dishwashers, who aren’t entitled to share in those tips. Meyer has sought to bridge that divide through a pricing model called “hospitality included”—essentially ending tipping. This in turn hikes up menu prices, which can be shared—in the form of higher wages—with cooks and dishwashers. Through a spokeswoman, Union Square declined to comment for this story.
Others have tried to emulate this model and failed. But Meyer seems to have succeeded, because he’s been able to retain top-shelf talent in his kitchen, even if only for a few years at a time. He pays better than his competitors, and crucially, his cooks sense they are cared for and listened to.
“If you go and ask people who work for Danny if they want a union, I think 75 percent would say no,” says Fekkak Mamdouh, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, an advocacy group that backs campaigns to raise wages. “They pay you well. They respect you. They talk well to you. There’s HR that takes care of you.”
The sense that management, more than a union, know what’s best for workers was part of the culture at Bacchanal, an open-air wine bar in New Orleans’ trendy Bywater neighborhood. After Hurricane Katrina, which bore down on the city in 2005, Bacchanal was one of the few neighborhood haunts that stayed open, and hosted chefs—many of whom had nowhere else to cook—on its spacious, graceful backyard patio. Musicians came, too. Before long, Bacchanal was more than a wine bar with food. It was a nightly party.
“One evening could bring multiple financial transactions: with the wine seller, with whoever was running the outdoor kitchen, with the band’s tip jar, with the dude who wandered in to sell sweet potato hand pies,” The Times-Picayune wrote in 2016.
Bacchanal has garnered national acclaim. Briefly, it was a shooting location for the HBO show Treme, which had a storyline inspired by the guest chef program. In the show, it stood as a symbol of the city’s post-Katrina resiliency. More recently, it has become the inspiration for a Cheers-esque sitcom about a neighborhood watering hole.
More to the point, the business appears to be thriving. Former employees say Bacchanal pulled in $20,000 in sales on a good Saturday night, and nets a seven-figure annual income. After testing the waters in Chicago and Los Angeles for possible expansions, the team behind Bacchanal helped open a new bar in New Orleans’ Marigny neighborhood. In February, the wine program was nominated for its second consecutive James Beard award. It’s been credited as the inspiration for similar concepts at new bars in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Bacchanal isn’t just beloved. By industry standards, it’s also a good place to work. In an unusual model, all employees—whether in the kitchen or on the floor—start at the same base wage, and they all split the tips. Former employees say that results in pay that’s above average for restaurants in New Orleans.
For Morgan Dowdy, a former dishwasher at Bacchanal, the pay wasn’t high enough for him to overlook feeling disrespected at work. “[D]ishwashing is something that nobody chooses to do,” Dowdy told me by phone. “It has to get done, and it doesn’t get a lot of respect in the restaurant.”
Originally from Alabama, Dowdy held other service jobs in New Orleans, including a stint as a pedicab driver, before he started at Bacchanal in 2016. Shortly after he was hired, the patio was getting slammed with crowds, many in town for Jazz Fest. Nine and 10-hour shifts turned into 11 and 12 hours, and the pay went up to nearly $20 an hour. Dowdy, however, said he felt like a cog, standing for hours at a time, toiling in a dirty kitchen. He watched customers drink to excess—a Dionysian scene he described as “a zoo, but a zoo for better-off people.”
Jazz Fest isn’t the only busy season in party-friendly New Orleans. There’s Mardi Gras, of course. Later in the year, around Halloween, there’s what some call the “haunted” season, when tourists flock to the Big Easy for cemetery tours. Those rushes go hand-in-hand with staff turnover. Staffing needs fluctuate. But so does the intensity of the job, said Michael Esealuka, a former Bacchanal food runner I also spoke to by phone.
“People leave this job,” she said, “because they get worked ‘til they’re done, and can’t do it anymore.”
Bacchanal and its management declined to comment for this story. But Dowdy and Esealuka said their complaints about being overworked fell on deaf ears, and recalled being told that long hours and harried demands were part of the “family” atmosphere. They began hosting post-shift late-night meetings at their nearby apartment, where other disgruntled cooks, runners, and bartenders shared frustrations. Talk turned to forming a union.
“At first, I was like, why—you know, who’s really suffering here?” said Ethan Cosby, a former cook, by phone. “But we got to talking about it. And Trump had just won the election. At that point, politics was a fun subject. That alone fired up a lot of people to be a part of it.”
In a letter to pro-union workers reviewed by The New Food Economy, Dowdy wrote that the employees needed to organize not because it’s fun, but because unions are a powerful tool, and an advocate for workers. By law, employers are required to negotiate with unions in good faith, over contracts that reflect the demands of the rank-and-file. In Dowdy’s words, these agreements are “the durable institutionalization of our power for the common good.”
Word spread quickly. Ultimately, Dowdy said, 33 of them attended meetings of what became the Bacchanal Workers Union. Meeting notes reviewed by The New Food Economy reveal job issues and grievances that were somewhat typical of restaurant employees. In the kitchen, workers experienced unsafe conditions, such as air that didn’t circulate out, and broken dish sprayers that had burned dishwashers’ hands. They were also not offered opportunities to take front-of-house positions, which former employees told The New Food Economy was a path to becoming a Bacchanal manager.
Meeting notes also reveal that workers felt higher-ups weren’t interested in helping them. Some workers had been waiting over two years for a raise. Scheduling was disorganized, particularly at the bar. A bartender claimed she was sexually harassed by a manager who was drunk on the job, according to multiple interviews with former employees. (New Food Economy was not able to independently verify the allegation.) Others felt management intentionally maintained “an atmosphere of anxiety,” often through video surveillance, according to the meeting notes.
The employees drafted a list of demands, which included an end to that harassment, and the formation of a workers’ council that would appoint shop stewards to liaise with managers. They wanted employment benefits like guaranteed sick days, time-and-a-half for holidays and last-minute shift covers, and health insurance (crucially important in an industry rife with substance abuse and mental illness).
Dowdy found someone who would represent them: Wade Rathke, the chief organizer of Local 100 of the United Labor Unions, an independent association that represents around 2,000 service workers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. Rathke is believed to have led the first-ever fast-food unionization campaign—at one Burger King in a Detroit-area Greyhound station in 1981—and he organized scores of New Orleans hospitality employees in the 1990s.
But Rathke’s best known as the co-founder of ACORN, an association of community organizers. In 2008, he stepped down in ignominy when it was revealed that he hid his brother’s million-dollar embezzlement from the board. ACORN would eventually shut down, after it was publicly smeared in a sting video by a controversial conservative activist. (Full disclosure: My dad was an ACORN organizer in the early 1980s.)
In a phone interview, Rathke said a successful campaign at Bacchanal would have been very significant. As the only restaurant union in a town of nearly 70,000 hospitality workers, it would have been an example and an inspiration. Other bars and haunts would follow. And more to the point, he thought that Bacchanal’s owners would support the drive, because they feared a backlash from customers.
“There was a belief by the committee that Bacchanal would have been in real difficulty with their core base—the sort of hipster, Marigny, Bywater neighborhood, the place-to-go watering hole, with good, different politics—if they had tried to bust the union once it was organized,” Rathke says. “If they had gotten further, we might have been able to find out if it was true.”
During a shift meal on April 30, 2017, Dowdy delivered 30 signatures to Miles Prescott, the general manager, showing that a majority of Bacchanal workers wanted a union. When he returned, a group of servers and food runners had donned Bacchanal Workers Union t-shirts—blue, with a graphic of a raised fist. Line cooks wore bandanas. Others coming off their shifts gathered around a cake and a new coffee maker, which Dowdy said the kitchen had been requesting for years. A Facebook group went live. In the parlance of the labor movement, they had gone public.
The workers were jubilant. But the mood was short-lived. Bacchanal management rejected the signatures, forcing a federally supervised election. According to interviews with Rathke, Dowdy, Esealuka, and three other former employees, over the two following weeks, Bacchanal management and ownership strategically and successfully killed the momentum.
In subtle, legally permissible language, managers began to discredit the drive. The New Food Economy reviewed a bullet-pointed flyer that had been taped near the schedule board in the kitchen. “Because you ask,” it read, “here are some facts.” Rathke had a checkered past. ACORN “purported to advocate on behalf of low and moderate-income families,” and after the embezzlement scandal, had been investigated by Congress, which was true. Plus, Local 100 didn’t even represent restaurants. “This union tries hard to keep you all in the dark,” it read. The message was clear: Do you really want to be represented by this sketchy guy?
Employees recalled that managers began giving out free margaritas to boost staff morale—which was somewhat unusual for a wine bar—and starting talking to some staffers about long-awaited performance reviews and potential raises. Tensions boiled over. Five days before the election, on May 13, 2017, the day of Bacchanal’s annual Rosé Fest, Dowdy said he got into an argument with part-owner Mary Jane Rudge. Dowdy claimed the interaction culminated in a physical threat from the bar manager, and later filed a federal complaint.
Two days later, management again issued its perspective, this time on the possible consequences of an election. In a weekly staff newsletter reviewed by the New Food Economy, management claimed it would be “prohibited from dealing directly with employees.” If ownership didn’t agree to a contract, and the staff went on strike, the costs to the workers could be devastating. “There is nothing romantic or fun about a strike,” the email read. People wouldn’t get paid. Bacchanal could “hire permanent replacements”—that is, the strikers could be fired.
“You may hear that your wages, benefits, and leave policies can only improve. This is not true. All working conditions are subject to negotiation. They can improve for some, stay exactly the same, or become worse for some or even all employees,” it continued. “We urge you to consider all of the facts and make the best decision for you, your family, your co-workers and Bacchanal,” the update concluded. “Let’s continue to work together to improve upon our operations. We urge you to vote no on May 18.”
By then, a majority of workers were no longer on board. The wine sellers, who former employees told me were groomed to become managers, identified more with management than with the dishwashers who toiled in the kitchen. “Bartenders and people selling wine think they’re learning about fine liquors and spirits,” Esealuka said. “You can’t mystify your exploitation when you’re standing behind a hot line.” Even Cosby, the cook, was questioning the drive. He started to waver, he told me, when he saw how it took an emotional toll on a manager, who used to work alongside him. Cosby said she was being “put through hell.”
With the tide turned, key members of the drive decided to call it off. Rathke withdrew the petition for representation, and the labor board, which would have supervised the election in the Bacchanal dining room, according to public filings, notified the owners. Shortly thereafter, Coryn Caspar, a manager, sent an all-staff email, signed by Joaquin Rodas, the executive chef and part-owner, that was shared with The New Food Economy.
“We are so appreciative of the comments many of you have shared with us and we are in awe of how engaged you all have been,” the email began. “Many of you have shared valid issues that you care deeply about and are important to us as well. Bacchanal has been and will always continue to be an inclusive, open and safe place to work for everyone.”
“Having said that, we are far from perfect and have been and should always continue to be a work in progress. In the days, weeks and months to come, we will be working with you all to make Bacchanal an even better place to work,” the letter went on. “We want to thank each and every one of you for caring so deeply about Bacchanal and the family we’ve built.”
Rodas may have been sincere. Indeed, after the election was canceled, employees were offered accident insurance, a step toward that health care coverage that they had been hoping to land in a contract. With the failed drive behind them, Dowdy and Esealuka quit. Heads cooled. And then, in early November, Cosby said, after two years of employment, he was fired for a “performance issue.” By then, others told me, Bacchanal was looking to a new frontier: pop-ups and expansions.
Maybe things would have been different, Rathke says, if he’d gotten involved with the drive earlier. He would have gone public sooner, and waged a kind of public shaming campaign when Bacchanal rejected the signatures. Had he gotten involved when Treme had been filming, “running in and outside of there, every other month, pretending it was Mardi Gras on HBO,” a show of solidarity from the production’s countless union members—actors, cameramen, laborers, drivers and so on—could have empowered wavering Bacchanal staffers. Many of them were more interested in making money, as much as they could, before heading off somewhere else. “Everybody was desperate to get every hour they could of work,” Rathke says. “These were squirrels trying to put away every nut they could before the summer.”
To win over the restaurant, and earn the trust of everyone—not just the die-hards who’d been at meetings all along—maybe the Bacchanal Workers Union should have scored a more tangible victory before filing for an election. Getting a coffee maker for the kitchen is one thing. Standing up for workers’ rights is another.
“‘Once we vote, then we’ll be a union,’ is not how you want to think about it,” said Esealuka, who became an organizer for Local 100, and is now co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America’s New Orleans chapter. As an example, she cited the efforts of the IWW in Portland, Oregon, which has unionized several Burgerville locations. “They help workers set up an organizing committee, then train them to act together, and to combat specific grievances in the workplace. With that confidence, then they’re able to expand, and with majority status, file for an election.” (That isn’t risk-free, of course. Fast-food workers have been illegally fired during IWW campaigns.)
That’s the way to think about it, politically speaking. But there’s another way, too—socially. “We didn’t really give people time to get a firmer philosophy on this,” Cosby told me. “Working relationships are a touch sentimental. And some people just wanted things to be simple.”
It is possible to eat union in New Orleans, however—in hotels.
Drago’s, for example, is a famous seafood restaurant with a location inside the city’s largest hotel, the Hilton Riverside. Two years ago, 500 employees there got organized and won an election. For the cooks and waiters, it stands to reason that conditions that are better than elsewhere. The hours are regular. The kitchen is less stressful. The pay is higher—around $86 more a week, nationally. And if there currently isn’t protection from diners, there may soon be: UNITE HERE, which represents the Hilton employees, pushes for sexual harrassment protections in contracts.
Dowdy and Esealuka said UNITE HERE, which comprises 270,000 members in the United States and Canada, had declined to represent the Bacchanal workers. The union did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But labor experts say it probably made that decision because its focus is on shops with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
Why? For one, UNITE HERE has more clout on a bigger scale. Airports, casinos, hotels, and stadiums, which are the union’s bread-and-butter, are often constructed as public works projects, and made possible at significant expense to taxpayers. When that happens, cities can force the businesses to hire union labor, as a sort of guarantee that the employers are, in fact, creating high-quality jobs. As we saw with Amazon, that doesn’t always go well. But when it does, the employers will enter into what’s known as a labor peace agreement.
Bacchanal just isn’t a worthwhile investment of the time and effort that goes into a unionization campaign. There are tens of thousands of workers—blackjack dealers, janitors, room service attendants, and so many more—clustered around the hospitality mecca of the French Quarter. Compared to hotels and casinos, or even the convention center, Bacchanal is small potatoes. A campaign there may improve the lives of a few dozen people. Unionizing a Hilton hotel, on the other hand, can send shockwaves through the industry.
“For UNITE HERE, it’s about where the resources that they have to put into organizing will have the biggest impact,” says Rebecca Givan, a Rutgers labor professor. “If you successfully organize, for example, the cafeteria workers in a major Silicon Valley company, you’ve raised the standard for a lot of workers, you’ve let the tech sector know that this is a place where they’re vulnerable, and you’ve potentially lifted all boats across the industry.”
There was a time, however, when UNITE HERE would have taken another look at a place like Bacchanal. That was back when it was known simply as the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International.
HERE, as it was then known, was founded over 100 years ago, and came to dominate the Appetite City. In the 1960s, claims Mamdouh, the ROC United co-founder, 80 percent of New York’s restaurants were staffed by the rank-and-file. He is a former HERE member himself, and was the shop steward at Windows on the World, an iconic dining room on the top floor of the World Trade Center.
Windows, like many of HERE’s shops, isn’t around any more. Those that remain are old enough to be your great-grandfather. They’re high-priced eateries like 21 Club, La Grenouille, and Tavern On The Green, and traditional bars and steakhouses, including Gallagher’s and Old Homestead. In Los Angeles, they’re Jewish delis.
During HERE’s heyday, when dining was still a luxury, it was understood that waiting tables was a long-term job, like being a plumber or a nurse, says Paul Freedman, a Yale historian, and the author of Ten Restaurants that Changed America.
But with the rise of fast food, coffee shops, and cafes, dining became informal, and the job demands lessened. Serving, in turn, became a profession mostly for young people—a way of earning money while they tried to break into something else. In the 1970s, Freedman offered, it was acting. Today, it’d be opening a start-up.
As a result, employers took advantage of their casual interest in the job by correspondingly offering fewer benefits. Those that don’t, Freedman says, can resent having to pay more for their labor than their competitors. As an example, he offers Le Périgord, an upscale destination for haute cuisine that was, until recently, under contract with a UNITE HERE local. Desperate to get out from it, he says, it shut down.
Over time, Freedman adds, New York City has become more relaxed about enforcing labor rights, and about the legal obligation of employers to bargain, in all industries, including hospitality. As the old, powerhouse unions have continued on a decades-long downward slide, many workers, in all industries, no longer feel the urgency, or see the benefits of joining one, either. Ultimately, though, the reason why we don’t see unions in restaurants is often more cultural than it is economic or legal.
In America, where we want casual dining, we get casual employment, too.