Behind the bar of a fancy New York restaurant, a 27-year-old bartender tidies her olive-and-cherry box. She attempts to look distracted while a middle-aged financial analyst holds her captive with small talk.
“So what else do you do?” he slurs, four Manhattans deep.
“Nothing,” she says. “I just do this.”
“Oh!” he answers. “That’s cool. Did you go to college?”
“Yup. I went to NYU.”
The man makes no attempt to hide his confusion. She leans forward and wipes away a few whiskey drops in front of him.
“I have loans,” she says, with a touch of attitude. “Don’t know what to tell you.”
Emily Sanders has been a waitress or bartender, on and off, for almost a decade. She has no health insurance, no 401(k), and a pathetic savings account. Most days, she gets to her first job at noon and leaves her second after midnight. If she’s sick but a little short on cash, she downs some DayQuil and goes into work anyway.
We all know an Emily. Six years ago, I was an Emily. After college I waited tables at a now-closed restaurant where she and I met. I was a server for years, through internships, passion projects, and freelancing, until I landed a full-time job doing what I love. Emily hasn’t been as lucky. Neither have a lot of my peers.
For kids who grew up middle-class, Emily is the embodiment of a cautionary tale: “You don’t want to end up flipping burgers all your life.” We internalized the message that service jobs aren’t “real” jobs. We wanted to be writers, therapists, lawyers. We didn’t want to spend our working lives reciting specials and making drinks. Even when these jobs drag on for years, we tell ourselves this isn’t what we’re really doing. It’s OK for now. It’s only temporary.
That was Emily’s assumption. Her middle-class mom managed to send her to boarding school, where she got decent grades and ended up at NYU’s artsy enclave, the Gallatin School. The summer before her senior year, Emily was broke and decided she wanted “one of those real waitressing jobs.” So, in December 2005, she got a job at a busy, boozy tapas restaurant in the East Village.
Since then, Emily has worked in half a dozen restaurants, taught English in Italy, and had a short stint at an office. Right now, she’s back to bartending. Her coworkers are actors teetering over the hill, aspiring real estate agents, office drones moonlighting for extra cash, breadwinners, Mexican immigrants who want to go back and build a house in Oaxaca. They are waiting for their lives to start or trying desperately to maintain them.
Still, Emily is the “1 percent” of restaurant workers—she makes a lot more money than your average minimum-wage, chain-restaurant employee. But even cream-of-the-crop gigs offer no benefits, little chance for advancement, and no recourse if you’re fired. Which could happen anytime, for any reason. Most of these jobs are pretty bad. And Emily considers herself lucky to have one.
Some depressing facts: Nearly half of people ages 16 to 29 do not have a job. A quarter of those who do work in hospitality—travel, leisure, and, of course, food service. A study of 4 million Facebook profiles found that, after the military, the top four employers listed by twentysomethings were Walmart, Starbucks, Target, and Best Buy. The restaurant industry in particular is booming; one in 10 employed Americans now work in food service—9.6 million of us. Those numbers are growing each year. Even though more and more laid-off, middle-aged Americans are turning to restaurant jobs, as of 2010 about two-thirds of food service workers are still under age 35. And the industry’s workforce is more educated than it was just 10 years ago.
Food and retail jobs usually don’t pay a living wage—let alone enough to pay back student loans—and they’re supplanting jobs that do. The average restaurant worker made $15,000 in 2009, compared to $74,000 for a manufacturing worker. Factory work, once the default employment choice for many newly minted adults, was backbreaking and monotonous. But, if unionized, it was also stable, full-time, and decently paid.
None of these things are true of the modern service industry, and shockingly few people are working to change that. Only 2 percent of food-service workers are union members. Big unions like the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union opt to organize health care workers and teachers instead of the folks behind America’s bars and cash registers.
But the restaurant workforce is changing. Whereas in the 1970s you could visit a steel mill and declare all the metal pourers “working class,” today philosophy majors from Brown are making lattes alongside folks who grew up poor and assumed they’d sling drinks for life. Most of the college grads are like Emily—they tell themselves they won’t be here long. Others have a hunch they might be making minimum wage for a while. And a few of them have decided to do something about it.
Erik Forman picks me up in a rusty blue Chevy pickup truck at the Minneapolis airport on the day after the 86-year-old Ford assembly plant across the Mississippi has officially shut its doors. Erik is 26 and earnest-looking. He’s dressed in layers: hoodie, jeans, dirty Adidas. He’s very excited to see me.
“I’m so glad someone is going to really tell the story of the Jimmy John’s union,” he says as he drives me through the Twin Cities, the trees bare in the dead of winter. Jimmy John’s is a sandwich chain that, aesthetically, is the hipster’s answer to Subway—located across the street from college campuses, with edgy black-and-red decor and cheeky signs like “Tweet Your Taste Buds” and “Bread So French, It Must Be Liberated!” The workers behind the counter and on the delivery bikes are mostly young, many with tattoos and beards.
Until 11 months ago, Erik was one of them. He was fired shortly after he and a group of workers ran a campaign to unionize 10 Twin Cities Jimmy John’s restaurants. They came thisclose to succeeding.
“There’s a service class in this country,” Erik says. “What corporations care about at the end of the day is power, and the only way they can maintain their power is by making sure workers don’t stick together. Which is the only power we have.”
Erik speaks in stump speeches. Between a rap about the “new precariat” and an ode to the power of collective action, it’s hard to get him to talk about his own life. He grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and studied humanities at Macalester College. But these days he’s on food stamps and deferring his college loans because he can’t afford to pay them. If you ask his manager, he’s a full-time barista at Starbucks making $10.19 an hour. If you ask him, his most important job is unpaid: He’s a full-time worker’s rights advocate.
In college in 2004, Erik was inspired by news that the Industrial Workers of the World had started organizing at a Starbucks in New York City, demanding higher wages and regular hours. He ended up getting a job a couple years later at one of the coffee chain’s stores in the Mall of America. With the help of the New York branch, he started small campaigns, like demanding the hire of another floor manager after workers complained the café was understaffed.
The IWW isn’t like other unions. The “Wobblies,” as members of the century-old IWW call themselves, claim to organize “the worker, not the job.” Rather than push for government certification or employer recognition, they tend toward campaigns like sit-ins to win higher wages and better benefits. The organizers are workers themselves rather than union employees, and they make decisions collectively—a sort of “general assembly” approach to unionizing. If the SEIU and AFL-CIO are the Democratic Party, the IWW is Occupy Wall Street.
In October 2009, Erik “salted in” at Jimmy John’s—that is, he got a job for the sole purpose of union organizing. The IWW had been secretly organizing there since 2006, but hadn’t gained a critical mass. This was their chance. Erik and a handful of other activist-workers formulated a list of grievances, everything from stagnant wages to the absence of tip jars. They started whispering in workers’ ears about raises, paid sick days, and health insurance.
The Jimmy John’s organizers decided to hold a secret-ballot election through the National Labor Relations Board so the franchise owners would have to negotiate with them by law. If a majority of workers vote to unionize in an NLRB election, management has to recognize their union. Employers have the right to lobby against the union, but not to intimidate its members.
The two sides began courting the 200 Jimmy John’s employees eligible to join. The owner of the franchise, Mike Mulligan, hired union-busting consultants from the Labor Relations Institute, who held anti-union video screenings on Saturday mornings with coffee and doughnuts. Workers donned “Vote no” and “Vote yes” buttons. Pro-union and anti-union posters were taped side-by-side on bathroom doors. At first, the union members were mostly educated, activist types like Erik. But the union grew to two dozen people as a few other workers started to trickle in to meetings. Workers with kids and chronic health problems and elderly parents. Workers with a lot to lose.
But most of the workers in the latter group didn’t support the IWW’s organizing effort. There was Charles, a 19-year-old black kid living in the poorest neighborhood in town who wore both a pro-union and an anti-union pin because he was afraid of losing his job. There was Choo Choo, a 30-year-old black single mom who was saving up to move back to Gary, Indiana, where her three kids were staying.
In October 2010, workers cast their ballots, and the union lost by two votes. A few months later, after the organizers cited unfair labor practices, the NLRB threw out the election results and announced a settlement allowing the union to set up another vote within 18 months.
By the time March 2011 rolled around, the group was ready to stage its next action. The official Jimmy John’s policy is “Don’t work sick,” but workers are required to find someone healthy to cover their shift. Many claimed they were written up or even fired when they were unable to do so. Union supporters started wearing buttons that said, “Sick of working sick.” They inundated the owners with disapproving calls. When the bosses ignored them, the union blanketed Minneapolis with 3,000 fliers that featured images of two identical sandwiches and dared passersby to guess which one was made by a sick worker. “Can’t tell the difference?” it read. They’re not exactly alone—only 12 percent of food service workers get paid sick days.
Even though Alyssa Rodewald had voted “yes” in the election, she’d stayed out of the union fight because she was afraid she would lose her job. The Native American teen had recently fled her family’s cramped, abusive home, and she was terrified of losing the apartment she’d busted her ass to afford. But the sick-day campaign resonated with her. And as luck would have it, a few days after she made clear to her manager that she supported the union, Alyssa came down with a stomach bug.
When she woke up for her double shift that morning, she could barely stand up. She says that when she couldn’t find someone to cover for her, she tried to call in sick, but her manager told her she’d lose her job if she didn’t show up. Every bump on the 35-minute bus ride to work felt like a punch in the stomach. As soon as she got there, Alyssa ran to the bathroom to throw up. She was sweating and shivering. After a heated exchange with her manager, she left—but first she had to sit by the phone and call a list of coworkers to find a replacement. The next time she came in for her shift, she says, she was fired.
After the sick-day campaign, six of the most vocal union members, including Erik, were fired for “disloyalty” and “disparagement.” Others were fired for tardiness or excessive absences. Erik says one organizer was fired for not wearing the right socks.
The non-union workers continued to distance themselves. “People didn’t want to admit that they were going to be in these jobs for a long time,” Erik says. “It’s a classist stereotype that these jobs don’t deserve to be good jobs.”
What remains of the Jimmy John’s union has gathered in a living room on the south side of Minneapolis. The eight people who live in this house are all under 30, paying between $185 and $215 a month for their rooms. There is an anarchist sticker on the end table. A stuffed unicorn, riding a gigantic, joint-smoking stuffed zebra, sits on the mantel. Cut-out snowflakes adorn the front window.
The handful of people here are a mix of current and former Jimmy John’s workers. They complain about cut hours, grueling night shifts, and missing overtime pay. But they aren’t whiny. They punctuate their war stories with ideas to replenish the union’s membership: a Facebook page to spread the word, an after-hours party to build worker relationships.
There’s B.K., a 23-year-old sandwich maker rocking a pair of jean shorts with ripped tights, a red plaid shirt, and an asymmetrical haircut. There’s Micah, who’s 24, a laid-back, bearded dude who was fired the same week as Erik. An androgynous young woman we’ll call Dani (not her real name), who pays $215 for a tiny room upstairs, is the newest member to “salt in,” but she’s already heard many reasons why her coworkers won’t join the union: “I’m gonna quit any day now,” or, “I’m trying to move,” or, “I’m gonna finish school.”
“And we’re seeing that that narrative isn’t playing out,” she says. “So they’re kind of like pipe dreams.”
To me, a pipe dream is becoming a bestselling author or an Oscar-winning actor or a jet-setting entrepreneur—not the chance to quit a minimum-wage job. Not the chance to move out of your hometown.
“What are the real dreams that we can actually accomplish?” Dani continues. “Fucking building a union.”
Dani is well aware she’s part of the 99 percent, financially screwed on the day-to-day. She’s a realist who dropped out of college before she racked up six-figure loans. She and Micah, B.K., and Erik may have grown up middle class, but they’ve accepted that they’ll be in the service industry for the foreseeable future, and these downwardly mobile kids aren’t letting their education or their politics go to waste.
Activists like Erik face a two-pronged problem: Middle-class kids don’t want to bother with unions because they have one eye on the door. Workers from the permanent underclass like Levi don’t join because they accept that these jobs are shitty, and if they’re fired, they’ll just have to go get another one. Turnover is what the industry depends on.
Most organizing efforts in the food service industry have been dead since the 1980s, when chain restaurants multiplied and hordes of young recruits who came of age in an anti-union era replaced the older, long-term workforce. Today, less than 5 percent of people under age 25 work in unionized jobs. The IWW, whose membership peaked at 100,000 during World War I, claims about 1,600 today. The AFL-CIO is the country’s largest cluster of unions, representing 12.2 million workers, but it has seen its influence diminish. The SEIU is the fastest-growing union in America—it’s added 1.2 million workers since 1996—but even it isn’t organizing restaurant workers. An AFL-CIO representative explained to me that it would be difficult to come up with the amount of paid staff necessary for a real campaign. The wages are so low and the turnover so high that the success rate is slim to none.
Service workers are also emotionally exhausted. Service work requires emotional exertion yet is less fulfilling than jobs in the creative class. “[Manufacturing workers] are able to retain their inner lives while they’re on the job,” says labor historian Peter Rachleff, a professor at Macalester College, “as opposed to service workers whose inner lives are being fucked with.” Think of Emily enduring the flirtations of her Manhattan-sipping customers. Or Alyssa being told to grin her way through the flu.
Yet even as workers are required to nurture their customers, their work is increasingly standardized factory-style, especially in national chains. Taylor Brydges, a researcher at the Martin Prosperity Institute, says workers aren’t allowed to think outside the box. “They’re script-oriented, they’re routinized jobs,” says Brydges. “To me, that implies you’re not trusting your workers.” There’s no room to stand out or impress your boss. No room for creativity.
Not even for all those studio art majors and budding entrepreneurs.
Emily knew it was time to quit the tapas spot when, after yet another night of post-work drinking, she left her entire shift’s earnings in a cab and ended up blubbering into a wine glass on the floor of her apartment. She bartended for a spell in Murray Hill, a neighborhood clogged with “fratty rich kids” who got “hammered, hammered, hammered.” Then at an uptown bistro, where she clashed with her “tyrannical” boss and no one ever backed her up. She started applying for office jobs. She was ready to hightail it out of the service industry and never look back.
After six months and what seemed like hundreds of applications, she got a call back from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. ROC is a plucky nonprofit that takes a lead-by-example approach to improving conditions for service workers. It coaxes restaurants to do things right and gives them blue ribbons for being “high road” establishments. Eventually, the theory goes, customers will vote with their dollars and other owners will follow suit.
The organization doesn’t get much traction with chains, but independent restaurants often hear ROC out. Still, fixing the service industry isn’t as simple as prevailing over greedy bosses. Many mom-and-pop shops have tiny profit margins. The same economic pressures that hit us individually—rising costs of health care, food, rent—are what make owners terrified of unions.
ROC’s New York branch hired Emily as a career coach, but she transitioned to coordinating the roundtable—a group of restaurants with worker-conscious business practices. Her job was to sit down with restaurant owners and convince them to give their employees health insurance or sick days. But as the only one in the office who’d actually worked in food service, she gravitated toward schmoozing with the workers instead. When she’d go to restaurants to meet with owners, she’d chat up the bussers and the kitchen guys, the servers and the bartenders, informing them of their rights: Did you know that labor laws apply to undocumented workers, too? Did you know it’s illegal to work 15 hours without a shift meal? She’d watch their eyes widen in response.
It was perfect—she was getting paid for being the squeaky wheel she’d always been—except for one minor problem. “I was actually making less money at this office job,” Emily says. “It really took me a minute to grasp that I couldn’t just pick up another shift and make an extra $100.”
Except that she could—back at the tapas restaurant. She returned to her old haunt with her eyes opened. She noticed everything now: her nonexistent hourly pay, an owner who was callous about his employees’ lack of health insurance, the fact that kitchen workers got paid for 39 hours when they were clocking at least 60.
Even when workers’ eyes were opened, they couldn’t do much if their bosses violated labor laws. “The Department of Labor is all paperwork and bureaucracy,” says Emily. “They have no one like the Department of Health walking in and grilling the employers.” Restaurants don’t have to display a grade in their front windows evaluating worker treatment.
Emily’s side gig at the tapas place ended when the restaurant closed, and she called up the manager of one of the restaurants she worked with at ROC and asked if they were looking for bartenders. They were. Then in October, ROC ran out of money for Emily’s position and she was laid off. She promptly started picking up extra shifts at the restaurant, and later got a second job with an uptown wine bar. She’s back in food service full time, making more money but without health benefits again. And no more 9-to-5 schedule. No more stability.
Her self-righteousness is also gone. Since she’s once again dependent on the kindness of drunk strangers to pay her bills, she can’t put her job on the line. She’s done haranguing busboys and bitching to bosses—it never seems to go anywhere.
Besides, she says, “I’m in the middle of applying to law schools, and I won’t be here next fall.”
Short on cash? Read about the monetary burdens of students in Student Debt, by the Numbers.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is GOOD’s associate editor. Excerpted from GOOD (Spring 2012), a quarterly magazine that reports on the individuals, businesses, and nonprofits moving the world forward.