Zagat logo


Zagat Q&A: What History Can Teach Us About Unionizing Restaurants

Dorothy Sue Cobble is distinguished professor emerita of history and labor studies at Rutgers University. She’s best known for her books on the history of labor movements within the hospitality industry, including Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century, and The Other Women’s Movement, the latter of which is credited with originating the term “labor feminism.”

Hospitality workers tend to be overlooked in conversations about the history of organizing. Why do you think that is?

It has changed somewhat, but there’s still this image of unions that’s associated with blue-collar men and with factory workers. It’s quite surprising how persistent that image is, given the fact that that’s a very small percentage of the labor movement today. The majority of workers are in the public sector. They are more professional, white-collar workers in the labor movement. It’s also feminized—close to a majority of union workers are female. So the image is really at odds with reality in that way.

Who were some of those first folks in hospitality that began organizing and unionizing?

The story really goes back to the late 19th century. The largest union at the time in the hospitality industry, and still into the present day, was made of hotel and restaurant employees, now called Unite Here.

The organizing started with cooks and bartenders, and it gradually spread to include food servers by the turn of the 20th century. There was substantial organizing in the restaurant industry—more so than in hotels, which was another surprise to me. Then we see a kind of reversal of that with hotel unionization continuing to grow and in some ways stabilizing, and restaurant unionization dropping off precipitously. We know it’s down to about 1 percent today, but in the peak, it was about a fourth of the industry.

If unionized workers made up a quarter of hospitality employees at its peak, why did that number drop down to where it is today?

It’s important to put it in the context of the larger history of labor organizing. We know there was a surge of unionism in the 1930s and 1940s with changes in the law, and that was true in the hospitality industry as well. So overall unionization peaks in the 1950s in the hospitality industry, just as it does in other sectors.

But what’s interesting is that the decline in unionized restaurants is greater than that of other sectors. I think that has a lot to do with a kind of mismatch between the law that came to dominate labor relations. Initially, the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Act had exemptions for non-industrial sectors like restaurants, garments, musicians, and construction trades. But those exemptions were gradually eroded, so you had a much more hostile legal environment. Some of the practices in the past, like picketing for recognition and allying with truckers to block deliveries of milk and bread to restaurants—these kinds of pressure tactics were made illegal.

There was increasing employer hostility to unions, and that’s certainly true in the restaurant sector with the growth of the National Restaurant Association and other groups. Part of that has to do with the “higher union premium,” meaning that it costs employers so much more to unionize.

What are some of the challenges of organizing within hospitality and restaurants as opposed to other industries?

I think it’s really important for people to understand that there are different forms of unionism—what we saw 100 years ago looked really different from the unionism that became dominant in the mid-century and what we see today. One of the things that stood out for me was how this particular form of unionism, what I call “occupational unionism,” was very concerned with the services it could provide employers as well as being attentive to what workers needed. So it operated in an environment in which there’s not clear, class-like divisions between employers and employees.

The unions tried to make it possible for both employers and employees to thrive. The union would operate to set basic standards in the industry, such as wage floors. Employers then wouldn’t have to worry about lowering their wages to be competitive with the bottom feeders in the industry. The union was there when it grouped employers into associations to provide and make possible benefits that employers, like a small restaurant, can’t really provide.

One of the best-kept secrets is that service workers actually have an advantage in organizing because they know the people that they serve—their customers—and they can form alliances with those customers. You see this throughout the history of the unions I was looking at 100 years ago, but it’s certainly true today.

Some restaurants and hotels in Detroit were trying to organize in the 1930s, and they called for customer “sip-ins.” This was the moment when the factory and autoworkers and industrial workers were organizing sit-down strikes. But in this particular case, the restaurant workers organized the customers to come and sit down and occupy the seats and sip coffee all day, and put pressure on employers that way.

In 1937, workers at Woolworth’s in Detroit staged a strike—including sit-ins and “sip-ins” at the lunch counter occupied by waitresses and sympathetic patrons. Photo: Courtesy Wayne State University.

The union was also attentive to how you could use and organize customers to create more of a desire by employers to have a union house. One of the tactics the union used was putting a big card in the window of unionized houses that said “Union House Union Bar.” In many cases, this would increase customer demand for the restaurant and expand the customer base.

What were some of the motivations for restaurant workers organizing at the peak of hospitality unions, compared to today?

I think there’s some definite similarity of desires for the kinds of changes that workers wanted. Historically, the issue of the living wage was certainly primary. Just like today, many of the lowest-paying jobs were in the restaurant industry. That issue is driving a lot of the organizing today as well because there hasn’t been an increase in the minimum wage since 1991.

Control over hours and scheduling is also a longstanding issue. Today we’ve got the movement for fair scheduling. Mainly that’s achieved through legislative initiatives at the local and state level, but also some at the federal level. But historically, unions made this a central concern. The way they wanted to solve the problem was by creating more flexible situations where the employers could go to a hiring hall or a worker registry, and workers could call in and actually replace themselves.

I remember looking at these old union contracts where the workers would agree to be responsible for having enough people to staff the restaurant, but they wouldn’t necessarily be responsible for showing up themselves. They just had to get somebody else who was trained and capable to work. This flexibility was particularly important for workers with children. Actually, one of the reasons I think that the restaurant industry was organized—even though it was a female-dominated sector and many other female-dominated occupations were not able to organize—is that many of the workers were primary breadwinners. They were divorced, single women and they had children, so they really had to band together to get a living wage and conditions that would give them some flexibility to take care of their children.

Benefits—health benefits, sick leave, maternity, and those kinds of things—were also really important. One of the things the unions didn’t necessarily want, and the hotel and restaurant and union was not alone in this, was benefits that were attached to particular employers. They wanted more universalized benefits. When you have these kinds of firm-based benefits, it makes it really difficult for people to move from firm to firm. It also makes it much more difficult for employers who don’t have a union to think about what the advantages of unions would be. If they unionized, they’d be one of the few employers that have this large part of their profits going to benefits. An enormous part of the cost of having employees is paying the dividends. When you have a more universalized system, those costs are shared. So the union and the hotel and restaurant employees historically pushed for broader-based sharing of these benefits among all the employers in an association. They also tried to get laws passed that would make these benefits more universal.

How does restaurant organizing differ at large chains like Starbucks from organizing at smaller, independent restaurants?

You need different approaches to organizing and different forms of unions and unionism depending on the group of workers that you’re organizing. And the restaurant sector has an enormous range, from small, independent firms to huge corporate chains.

I like to think about the future of organizing and the restaurant industry not as “one size fits all,” but “let many flowers bloom.” You’ve got the kinds of campaigns that are being conducted at Starbucks, which are really for union contracts. That’s really important.

With Starbucks, there’s 160 stores now that have petitioned for a contract, and there’s much to admire here in what they’re doing. They’ve targeted a corporation that’s well known, that’s vulnerable to pressure from customers. There are issues of wages, certainly, and scheduling. So you see a lot of continuity there with the past.

I’m also impressed with some of the non-contract approaches to improving standards in the industry. I would put these in the large box of “worker mutualism.” They include things like the “Fight for $15” and Service Employee International Union’s idea of pushing for municipal- and state-level ordinances that raise wages. They’re also organizing workers nationally, almost like a national strike for recognition and for raising wages. And that has been really successful in the sense that 10 years ago, $15 an hour seemed like an unachievable demand. Now it’s much more realistic, and it’s actually come to pass in many sectors.

Then you see some of these what you could call “minority unionism,” where you have groups of workers organizing in a firm, not necessarily pressing for a contract, but for changes in the way the business is conducted. They’re pushing for an end to sexual harassment and an end to race discrimination. Those kinds of issues are really important, and we know historically they have been deeply problematic in hospitality. There’s a division between the front of the house and the back of the house, but you also have longstanding sex segregation where women were concentrated in the breakfast and lunch trade, which is, historically, the lowest paid and least tipped. Men were in the fine-dining establishments and behind the bar where you have liquor service. Those are the better-tipped positions.

Are there any lessons that we can take from the history of the labor movement in restaurants that we use to better understand the current moment?

One of the lessons that comes out of looking at unionization historically is that it’s hard to predict, but that it does often seem to come in waves. There are these spurts of unionization, a kind of tipping point. So you’ll see long periods of plateau or decline, and then you’ll see a real spurt of growth. That might be because of a change in people’s sense of what is possible—that they see some successes among Starbucks employees, and they begin to believe that they too can win. I think workers organize when they are faced with really abysmal working conditions, like you see in certain places in the hospitality industry, but they also organize when they think they’re going to win and when they see the possibility of victory. And so we may be at a tipping point in that sense.

With the pandemic in particular, the issues of scheduling have been really challenging, because you had a crisis when the schools were closed, childcare was unavailable, and workers were not having control over when they worked. So the ability to balance the demands of employment and family were really exacerbated and burdensome.

I remember one worker saying to me when I was doing some interviewing that they see the customer as their friend and enemy. In the present day, there’s the general growth in public incivility and irritability, and that’s all been offloaded onto frontline workers—often women, often people of color—in the restaurant industry.

Some owners and employers are starting to implement some of these changes and protections on their own, without the call for a union or organizing. What is the relationship between increases in unionization and employers who independently choose to give their employees benefits typically associated with union drives? Do they influence one another at all?

Employers are a diverse group, so they are making changes for lots of different reasons. But certainly many employers, when they see more of a threat of workers organizing and joining a union, or when they see workers organizing politically and being able to pass certain legislation that would mandate changes, they will respond by making those changes themselves. So in the 1950s, when a quarter of workers in the industry were organized, those workers certainly had the benefits of union contracts and high union standards, but also there was what’s called a “spillover effect.”

Workers have more choices than they used to. Employers are having to up their standards to attract workers, perhaps in response to what they see as pressure from collective efforts.