Should Restaurant Workers Be Unionized?

Photo by Pixabay via Pexels

The employee struggle to unionize Starbucks has been in the news recently. Following a successful union vote in Buffalo in late 2021, the effort spread to Seattle, where four stores have voted to join the union thus far. In fact, Starbucks has a spotty history of employee-backed unions dating to 1985; none have really taken hold across the company, and management has opposed the effort consistently and strenuously.

The drive to unionize is not strictly about money, even though the average employee earns only $14 per hour. Nor is it about benefits: Starbucks provides health insurance to everyone who works at least 20 hours per week, and many employees have gone to college on the company tell me. Rather, employees seem to want a say in how the company is run, which may turn out to be more elusive than any material compensation.

Phoyo by Emmy Paw via Pexels
Photo by Emmy Paw via Pexels

Cheerleaders for the American labor movement are hoping that the Starbucks effort will spread to other chains (and fast food in particular), but that outcome isn’t likely. The Starbucks stores are company-owned, while the majority of fast-food restaurants are franchises, which would make unionization difficult. When it comes to fine dining, the situation is even trickier, since many restaurants are small, chef-owned establishments with a handful of employees.

Decades ago, I spent six months as a card-carrying member of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 25 in Washington, DC, an AFL-CIO affiliate. I was working in a hotel dining room which had once been among the city’s hottest restaurants, but which by then was in decline; business was erratic, and income was unpredictable. To combat boredom, servers drank purloined liquor from the bar, traded some of it for purloined food from the kitchen, and engaged in other scams of opportunity. The union dues were mandatory but minimal, and the local was aggressive in protecting the security of a job which was probably not worth having.

Photo by Tinny Hu via Pexels
Photo by Tinny Hu via Pexels

Given that servers in high-end restaurants can earn as much as entry-level physicians or lawyers, why would those workers want to unionize? The answer is simple: to hold on to more of the income that is rightfully theirs. In certain restaurants, tips are pooled and under the control of the owner, who can do them own as he or she sees fit. Cooks typically make far less money than servers, and there’s a national shortage of qualified kitchen staff at the moment. When those cooks ask for a raise, the unscrupulous owner simply dips into the tip pool to pay for it.

Can you name another situation where employees are expected to pay the salaries of their fellow employees? Fortunately, the practice is not as widespread as it was a decade ago, thanks to the work of attorneys such as D. Maimon Kirschenbaum. Kirschenbaum practices employment law in Manhattan and has filed hundreds of lawsuits against restaurants and catering halls that steal money from their employees. His cases of him have been well documented in this blog, and he has achieved multi-million-dollar settlements against restaurants such as Smith & Wollensky, Nobu, Babbo, and Jean-Georges.

Unions make the most sense in situations where workers keep their jobs long-term, such as auto workers or teamsters. Of the 12 million people employed in American restaurants, only 1.3% are unionized, and with good reason—the occupation may be a lifelong career, but the jobs themselves tend to be transitory. Until there are enough Maimon Kirschenbaums to go around, a victimized server is likely to hand in his or her apron and seek employment elsewhere.

Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel by him, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?