Union-Free Kitchens: On the Reasons For Low-Unionization in Restaurant Work

By Adam J. Pearson

Faiz Imam wrote to me that he was reading an article on the history of the restaurant for his geography of food class and asked for my input on a particular passage that came up.  The passage, in the article “Restaurants” by Rebecca Spang, stated that “labor historians have long puzzled over the very low rates of unionization in restaurant work. One explanation is that the industry has largely institutionalized a system of informal rewards that would be lost with formal contracts: tipping encourages competition among members of the wait staff, rather than solidarity. Furthermore, waiting tables is commonly casual work rather than a lifelong career. Finally, the antagonistic, often combative, relation between kitchen and dining-room employees means that no single union has ever had much success in reaching both groups of workers.”

My response was grounded, not in statistical or historical knowledge, but in my 7 years of experience working as a cook in several restaurants. I began by agreeing with Rebecca Spang that tipping, as usually practiced, tends to produce more competition than collaboration.  When tipping is relative to individual performance, waiters may steal tables and resort to other selfish behavior in order to get financially ahead. However, there are other ways of organizing tipping systems, such as pooling and then distributing equal amounts to all servers, that favour collaboration over competition. This alternative system has its own drawbacks, however; it encourages scorn for those who don’t do as much work.  The rationale behind this scorn is that it is unfair that people who do less work should still receive the same wages.  In a restaurant with a cohesive team spirit, however, it can be successful.

In addition, Spang states that the casualness and transitoriness of waiting jobs undermines attempts to unionize in restaurants. There is some truth to this claim, but while waiting tables can be casual work, I’ve met waitresses who have been waiting tables for 40 years. They aren’t as uncommon as we may think.  If the article’s position were sound, then, we might expect such waitresses to lead efforts to unionize.  But this is not what we commonly observe.

Moreover, Spang points to an antagonistic relationship between the kitchen staff and the waiting staff as another cause of the failure of unionization initiatives within most restaurants.  It is true that sometimes there is an antagonistic relationship between dining-room and kitchen-staff; however, in well-managed restaurants, such relationships are extremely uncommon.  Good managers know how to address the roots of such antagonistic relationships before they get particularly serious and redirect the professional relationships among staff in a more constructive direction. In fact, in well-managed restaurants, there is great solidarity between everyone in the restaurant, regardless of whether they work in the front or in the back. If you watch the Japanese drama “Bambino,” you’ll see an example of such a restaurant. It is up to the managers to ensure that a sense of teamwork and collaboration is established; good managers can do it, bad ones can’t. I’ve seen both scenarios in the course of my career.

In my experience, the real reasons there are so few unions in restaurants have little to do with any of  the points pinpointed by Spang’s article. Low-unionization in restaurant work is due to two main factors: (1) the fact that most restaurants are privately owned and (2) the fact that bosses often fire people before they even seem to be considering forming unions, let alone starting one. Due to (1), bosses can easily control the flow of their employees and often have back-ups waiting in case they need to replace anyone quickly. Due to (2), pre-emptive firing is a common practice; restaurant owners get away with it because they often find other reasons to justify the firing that don’t mention the union plans (e.g. too slow, inept, often burns ingredients, lateness, etc.).  For these reasons, unionization rates in restaurants remain extremely low.  This has been the case for decades and I do not foresee it changing any time soon.

Spang, Rebecca. (2003). “Restaurants” in The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (ed. Solomon H. Katz) (New York: Scribners, 2003) Volume 3, pages 179-186 .


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