A Union for Hospitality Workers?

By a worker in the hospitality industry in Virginia…..

I have spent my entire working life in the restaurant industry. From dishwasher, busboy, to chef, I have done it all. No matter what position I have been in, or what restaurant I have been in, the situation is always the same. The workers are disorganized, exploited, and seen as expendable. How are we treated in our industry? Let’s take a look;

As of December 2021, there were 15.5 million workers in the U.S. employed in the hospitality industry.

In the leisure and hospitality sector the union membership rate was only 2.2 percent. And in food services and drinking establishments, it was a microscopic 1.2%. Wages and conditions clearly reflect the lack of any union organization. For all intents and purposes the workers in this industry are unorganized. And it shows.

There are lots of realities when working in the hospitality industry. Long hours, low pay, crazy and erratic working hours, and a situation where the workers are completely at the mercy of the bosses. Sometimes tyrannical bosses. All of the fun stuff in life happens on the weekends; but that is the busiest period for us in the hospitality industry. Trying to maintain good family relations and friendships with people outside of the industry is difficult when you’re working every holiday, and every weekend. Workers in “the back of the house” toil in obscurity. Workers in “the front of the house” are seen by the public, but their conditions are equally bad.

Not to mention the unsafe working conditions. My boss refuses to run the a/c in the winter months, declaring that, “It’s cold outside, why would I run the a/c?”. No matter that it regularly reaches 100 degrees in the kitchen during peak service hours. We have had several cooks pass out while working due to exhaustion and extreme heat. Many other situations make this work far more dangerous than what most people might think. Slips and falls, burns of all kinds, and injuries from cutting and processing machinery are among them.

We are sadly viewed as the lowest rung on the workplace ladder. Our industry is perceived as work for “high-school kids” or other unskilled workers. This neglects the fact that anyone who has ever had to send their food back for being improperly prepared should have evidence enough to see that all labor is skilled labor. Many in the industry are also highly trained and experienced, some having attended advanced schools and training to learn the craft, or spent decades on the job. At the start of the pandemic we were told we were “essential employees”, yet we were forced to continue cooking and providing meals and drinks for a population that barely knows that we exist. The owners and bosses view us as expendable, and not deserving of a bare minimum standard of living. If we won’t do it under these conditions, there are always new recruits, other unorganized and desperate workers at the back door who are driven to accept the appalling wages and conditions.

The hospitality industry also has the lowest rate of health insurance for the workforce. As of 2021, only 32% of hospitality workers have healthcare coverage, compared to 77% of private industry workers, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even for those few with employer-provided insurance the costs are sky-high, and the coverage leaves a lot to be desired. Sickness among the staff often goes untreated. What are the workers to do? Time off for illness is frowned-on and might end your career right then on the spot. So, we work while sick and injured.

All of these issues add up to a workforce that is fed up and looking for a better life – usually in jobs elsewhere. As of 2022, a full 26% of food and hospitality workers said they intend to find new employment in a different sector. Who can blame them? With no union, no immediate prospects for improvements, the workers will move on. But for those who do move on, many will find themselves returning again and again to the industry they left in disgust, since it’s what they know, what they are trained for, and since in many areas it is the only employment available.

Humans are naturally free, creative, social beings. But our work life is repetitive, and machine-like. Our unpredictable schedules, and long hours don’t allow us much time to cultivate our talents and develop and utilize our creative powers. What’s more, most of us have little control or power over our work life. This makes it hard for workers to live lives that are truly their own. There are countless numbers of situations where our industry takes advantage of us, and runs us into the ground. This industry is also very profitable for the bosses. Why else would there be a restaurant, bar, or hotel on every corner? The benefits of the wealth created in this sector are captured totally by the owners, leaving the workforce to scramble, struggle, fume, and suffer.

This situation must be confronted by the workers. The bosses will not change unless they are forced to change. The government is not coming to save us. It is up to us in this industry to connect with each other and begin to organize. There are stirrings in this sector that everyone has already heard about; Starbucks has now unionized in almost 300 locations, and many other small coffee shops are unionizing. A union has begun to form at the Chipotle chain. Among large food service companies union organizing is expanding, and there are beginnings of post-pandemic organizing again in the chain hotels. Workers at some small local and regional hospitality companies are also unionizing.

Contact me at tidewatersolidarity@gmail.com if you work in this industry and are interested in something better. Please circulate this article far and wide, especially to those who work in this sector or who formerly worked in it. Let’s do it! Let’s stop complaining and moaning about things, stop quitting and running to the next place that is just as bad, Let’s make a stand and unionize! We deserve better and we can win if we organize!

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