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labor Food Service Is Grueling Work — So More And More Workers Are Organizing

From basic safety issues like nonslip mats in the kitchen to better salaries and benefits, the fight to create a more just industry ramped up this year.

Before heading to Connecticut for Passover earlier this year, my partner and I planned to have a talk with their parents about the local Stop & Shop. It was the closest grocery store to their house, big and convenient and the most likely place they’d be getting groceries to host over 20 people. But on April 11, over 34,000 Stop & Shop workers across New England, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, went on strike. We didn’t want to cross a picket line.

Turns out, we didn’t have to do much convincing. When my partner called their mom she said, “We’re a union family. I’d never cross a picket line.”

2019 has seen a labor awakening in America, the re-sprouting of an ethos and a movement that’s been building for years (and has existed for generations), and the business of how we eat has become a locus of organizing effort. There’s the ongoing unionization of fast-food and other food production companies: In 2018, employees at Burgerville, a fast-food chain in Portland, Oregon, pushed to unionize, making them, astoundingly, the first federally recognized fast-food union.Little Big Burger followed in 2019, as did Anchor Steam Brewery. Already unionized grocery stores and airline caterers either went on or threatened strikes, and so did Instacart workers, though they are not formally unionized, and McDonald’s workers in the UK. Workers at Whole Foods, who have long faced union busting from Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, came out against their parent company’s collaboration with ICE.

There’s also the legislative side. The Chicago City Council is considering increasing the tipped minimum wage. In Washington D.C. an initiative to do the same was passed by voters, and is still being fought for after D.C.’s City Council revoked it. California passed AB5, which ostensibly protects gig-economy workers like Uber Eats drivers from being classified as independent contractors instead of employees and being denied benefits. Fight for $15 has fought for a $15/hour minimum wage long enough that numerous Presidential candidates are on board with their message. And more restaurateurs are experimenting with eliminating tipping altogether, a system that has its roots in slavery and classism.

A convergence of influences is pushing the labor movement forward right now. Wages are stagnant despite a low unemployment rate. “If workers are as scarce as the unemployment rate and many other measures suggest, employers should be raising wages to compete for them,” reports the New York Times, and workers know it. With a recession feeling imminent, the labor movement continues to build.

When Brishen Rogers started working in restaurant kitchens, the pay was actually pretty good. He got around $10 an hour in the mid-’90s working back of house in Charlottesville, Virginia. The conditions were rough, but he reasoned that’s just how kitchens were. Even when it came to potentially harmful tasks, the managers didn’t take the kitchen staff seriously — like when workers said it was dangerous to clean out the hot deep fryer at the end of the night, and wanted to do it in the mornings instead. “One night my hand slipped off that lever and went right into the oil, and I got third-degree burns all over half of my right hand,” Rogers said. “And the owner of the restaurant tried to convince me not to go to the hospital because she didn’t want to have a worker’s comp claim.”

Rogers says that moment spurred him into studying employment law, which he now teaches at Temple University. Organizing labor isn’t just about getting more money, but protecting workers from managers who don’t want them to go to the hospital for third-degree burns. Rogers recalls that nobody in the kitchen was particularly interested in organizing at the time, partially because Virginia is a right-to-work state, meaning workers could more easily be fired for attempting to organize. But the other reason is that many of the people he worked with were students and they saw the kitchen as temporary workplace. “If you think you’re just passing through a job, you’re less likely to fight to make it better,” he said.

This has been food service’s main hurdle in the labor movement. Food service work has often been derided, both from the outside and by those who participate in it, as short-term, unskilled labor. It’s for high school students on summer break, burnouts with no other prospects, or those who hope that, while this week they’re washing lettuce, next week it’ll be fries, and in two years they’ll be in a management position. Most of these stereotypes are just a dog whistle for making fun of the poor, but the image of food service work as temporary contributes to the feeling, even amongst people in the industry, that there’s no point in investing more energy (or union dues) than necessary.

The food industry has traditionally had low rates of unionization (just 3.9 percent in 2018). While grocers and some hospitality workers have long-established unions, it seems fast food isn’t unionized simply because unionizing efforts have been mostly focused elsewhere. In 1947, Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act, which was introduced after the strike wave of 1945 and 1946. The act limited unions’ power and allowed for states to pass right-to-work laws, which ban union contracts. The law was passed seven years after the first McDonald’s was founded, and four years before the phrase “fast food” was recognized by Merriam-Webster. The rise of fast food coincided with the erosion of the labor movement, and according to Brennan, some bigger unions are reluctant to take the risk. “A lot of that has to do with these big employers that you can get big contracts with, whereas most fast food is franchised,” he said. The idea of who one’s employer is in a franchise has been up for debate, and the White House has recently proposed new rules that would make it easier for a corporation to get out of being classified as a “joint employer.”

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There have of course been many organizing attempts over the years, such as the Industrial Workers of the World campaigns with Jimmy John’s and Starbucks. That’s what Luis Brennan says sparked the idea of organizing for the Burgerville Union, which has been covered as the first federally recognized fast food union in the U.S. (Brennan says that honor actually goes to a Burger King at a Greyhound station in Detroit in 1980, which shut down shortly after bargaining). “The issues that we are facing, the root causes of a Burgerville worker’s union are not new, like the low wage economy,” said Brennan. “We started getting the feeling that this is the time for organizing and for building a union, with both the Occupy movement and the fast food strikes... this is our time in history.”

Workers at Little Big Burger, which unionized this year, also saw the effects of a low wage economy get even worse. LBB was acquired by Chanticleer Holdings in 2015, after which Little Big union member Cameron Trowell said he began to notice “benefits that existed before and were being taken away,” such as health care, promised raises, and even shift beers. But while Chanticleer’s acquisition may have been what propelled LBB into organizing, the union is mostly focused on fighting the terrible conditions that have become commonplace throughout the food service industry. “It’s safety conditions being ignored and corners being cut to ensure profit by under staffing us, giving our schedules out only a day in advance,” said Trowell. The first action the union took was trying to get slip mats in the kitchen so people didn’t fall. Trowell also shared a story about the time he got hit by a car on the way to work, and was told by a manager he could take a “little longer,” but had to show up if he couldn’t personally find someone to cover his shift.

Members from both the Burgerville and Little Big Burger unions mentioned fast food’s high turnover rate as a hurdle to organizing. Nate Pride, who started working at Burgerville over two years ago, says “working fast food is definitely really taxing and I frequently don’t want to go anywhere after I get off work,” whether that’s to a picket line or an organization meeting. There’s also the cultural stereotype of what is considered a union job. Trowell says that growing up, he thought of union work as “someone with a hard hat on.” That flawed understanding of what is and isn’t a union job, and the idea that “unskilled” laborers don’t also deserve protections, is something that’s being slowly undone. Eric Cross, another member of LBU, also works in an office now. “Working an eight-hour shift in an office is nothing compared to an eight-hour shift where you come home reeking of fried grease and you have burns all up and down your arms,” he said. “The idea that that’s not worthy of a union is very insulting.”

As union membership declined through the end of the 20th century, the public conception of unions matched what laws like the Taft-Hartley act implied — that union workers were corrupt bullies who were trying to charge hard-working business owners too much to do no work, and were willing to threaten workers who didn’t want to join. (Think of Tony Soprano shaking down spots on union construction jobs for his guys to get paid to sit around or the corruption depicted on The Wire.) “Often the public image was that [union members] were a bit greedy and basically protected workers who were already pretty well off,” says Rogers. The messaging worked, and as business and the government got more power to bust unions, fewer and fewer people mourned their loss.

Public opinion has recently swung in the other direction. Just over 10 percent of Americans are in a union now, considerably less than the 34 percent in 1954. However, more than half of Americans now say they view unions favorably, a number that has risen from around 41 percent since the recession. If there’s a silver lining to the ongoing decline of unionization, it’s that now, “membership in unions has gotten so low that people don’t even have a negative view of unions anymore,” Rogers says. There’s less of the cultural baggage associated with being in one, the slate has been wiped clean. Many of the organizers I spoke to said they’d never been in a union before, and either had no idea what they were about until recently, or a positive impression based on a dictionary definition of a union as a group of people with common cause arguing for their rights.

In The New Republicjournalist Kim Kelly recently outlined organization efforts at Chipotle, which claims to serve “food with integrity,” but has a history of food safety issues and poor treatment of its workers. When asked about why food industry workers are banding together now when conditions have basically always been rough, Kelly said, “I think what’s changed is a ramped-up effort from SEIU 32BJ [the country’s largest union of service workers, including food service] to pour resources into this fight; an increase in awareness and public sympathy towards fast food workers’ plight; an upswing in union activity that’s been rightfully dominating headlines for the past few years; and a growing dissatisfaction with the craven, brutal exploitation of the entire working class by those who profit off of our labor.”

Having the support of a strong union — whether it’s the massive SEIU, which has the institutional power to negotiate contracts and benefits for workers, or the more radical and decentralizedIWW, a member-run union more focused on direct action — has been integral to these efforts. “When you’re a low-income, marginalized worker struggling to maintain a basic level of safety at work, having a union come in and say, hey, we’ve got resources and institutional power and we’re going to fight for you, that’s a game-changer,” Kelly writes.

You don’t have to work in a restaurant or a grocery store to be a food worker now. Anyone who drives for Uber Eats or picks up groceries for Instacart can find themselves in the food industry, so its numbers are growing. Though the work is still often seen as a stepping stone to better, more permanent wages, some organizers are trying to use that as an advantage instead of an obstacle. “It kind of ends up cutting both ways. Part of turnover helps fuel action because people are willing to take some risks,” says Brennan. If workers are already planning on a fast exit, why not leave the industry a better place?

Or, as Pride so succinctly puts it, “What’s to lose?”