The Daily Gamecock

Column: COVID-19 exposes need for labor unions in restaurants

Restaurant workers have been one of the hardest-hit groups of workers by COVID-19, but unfair working conditions didn't appear out of nowhere six months ago.

As long as staff don't have any real control over their jobs, post-COVID restaurants will probably be just like pre-COVID ones, workplace issues and all. Workers need real change, and one vehicle for this type of change is the labor organizing movement.  

By the end of April, almost 5.5 million food service workers had lost their jobs, and 2.5 million still haven’t gotten them back. It is also estimated that 20% to 25% of independently-owned restaurants are closed for good.

However, we can’t just blame the virus. Even without COVID, working conditions in the restaurant industry would still not be ideal: Many workers are paid minimum wage. The median hourly wage is only $12.67 for cooks and $11.00 for servers.

Remember, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 an hour – and some of these workers do not get paid sick leave, which is an issue during a global pandemic. 

There’s clearly a problem in our restaurant industry. COVID-19 might have popped the bubble, but the low wages and bad benefits will continue, virus or not.

First, we need to approach it on a systemic level. This is not just a situation caused by mean bosses or cruel corporations, though they certainly exist. It’s caused by the fact that in a restaurant, like any business, the owners and management are the ones that hold power.

This means that no matter who those people are, they will always be incentivized to keep their labor costs as low as possible. After all, lower wages and benefits mean the restaurant can spend more on things such as ingredients and rent – and, ultimately, secure a higher profit margin. 

While this incentive might seem reasonable at first, you should ask yourself this: When you’re hungry, what makes you want to go out to Cool Beans or Cantina 76? It might be because you can get some great tacos or a nice cappuccino, thanks to the cooks and baristas. Maybe it’s because you can depend on getting solid service and eating in a clean restaurant, thanks to the wait staff and cleaning crew.

Whatever your reason might be, I’m pretty sure that it’s not because you want to see the owners secure a high profit margin. If the things that make restaurants popular and successful are done by the workers, why don’t the workers have any power?

The answer is that right now, the vast majority of individual restaurant workers are just that: Individual workers who can’t hope to challenge the unfair aspects of their workplace. This dynamic means that one solution to this systemic problem is for workers to organize themselves into something stronger than an individual: a labor union. 

A restaurant staff that’s organized into a union is immediately empowered because unions change the dynamic between workers and management. Organized labor can challenge bosses with a collective voice, and it can act collectively, too — after all, a restaurant can’t function if its workers don’t want it to. This change in the dynamic lets workers start to fight for better wages and working conditions. And the best part is that when they fight, they win. 

According to a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics news release, the median weekly earnings for a non-unionized food service worker is $560. For a union member, it’s $611, a 9.1% pay increase for the same work.

Labor organizing campaigns can also have positive effects outside one’s immediate workplace.  The Fight for $15 campaign, which seeks to organize fast-food and other low-wage workers, has pushed multiple states to adopt higher minimum wages. 

Ultimately, unions give workers the chance to have some power over their work and the value that they create for their employers. They play a crucial role in the struggle to make our economy more fair and democratic, and that includes our restaurants. Eventually, cooks and servers will be able to take off their masks, so let’s push for a post-COVID economy that lets them do it in a restaurant they have some control over.


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