The historical precedent for fast-food strikes

More than a century ago, American waiters organized, struck — and won

December 21, 2013 10:15AM ET
Waiters posing before their tables
Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

For more than 150 years, the U.S. labor movement has been plagued by the false belief that some types of workers just can’t be organized. At various times, labor leaders have ignored or actively undermined immigrants, African-Americans, women or “unskilled” workers who wanted the protections of a union, under the assumption that they could not, or would not, contribute to the greater union cause.

Waiters are an extreme case in this history. Their ranks were drawn heavily from oppressed demographics: African-Americans in the early 19th century, then Irish, Germans and subsequent waves of immigrants. By the early 20th century, and especially during the labor shortages of World Wars I and II, waitresses also proliferated in American restaurants and canteens. But despite waiters’ large numbers, union leaders considered them unorganizable, or not worth organizing. They doubted that minorities and women possessed the discipline for labor solidarity. The complex skills that waiters used on a daily basis — speed, memory, multitasking, interacting with the public — were considered less impressive than craft skills that created a tangible product, like shaping a horseshoe or rolling a cigar. Even within the union of service workers that was supposed to represent waiters — the predecessor to today’s UNITE HERE — bartenders dominated the union’s ranks for most of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and demonstrated the same prejudices against waiters as the general public.

Today there are more than 10 million waiters in the United States, some making good wages and tips, others struggling to survive on the tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, which has not been raised in 22 years. It is still an occupation dominated by immigrants, minorities and women. Among all the workers who serve food to us today, fast-food workers generally work under the worst conditions. According to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, more than half of these workers earn so little that they must rely on public assistance; low wages at McDonald’s, for example, are estimated to cost taxpayers $1.2 billion a year to help employees survive.

UNITE HERE — a union of waiters as well as airport, hotel, gambling, garment, textile, laundry and transportation workers, with a membership of more than 250,000 — is supposed to support waiters’ rights. But it’s significant that this union hasn’t taken the lead in organizing the one-day strikes of fast-food workers in August and on Dec. 5. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has traditional strengths among building-service and health care workers, has been more supportive. What’s more, the remnants of old discriminatory beliefs about waiters are visible in the surprised tone of many commentators and pundits who have written about the strikes. In short, these workers are still seen as less than worthy, or capable, of union membership and solidarity.

Special conditions

Today’s embattled fast-food workers might be inspired by the history of national waiters’ strikes, which dates back to the 19th century. Against all assumptions, when conditions were right, restaurant workers organized, struck and won.

The first national U.S. restaurant strike took place in 1853, when, that April, African-American waiters working in the hotel restaurants of New York founded the Waiters Protective Association, struck briefly and won higher wages. Reports of the victory inspired other waiters up and down the Eastern Seaboard. These workers collaborated across racial lines, which was rare for unions in the 19th century, and organized themselves across many kinds of workplaces: restaurants, hotels, saloons, boardinghouses and, it seems, even some private homes.

On April 21, thousands of waiters walked off the job in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, demanding a higher wage and a new measure of dignity. They were especially aggrieved by the common practice of managers calling to them by whistling, as if they were dogs, and voiced their outrage publicly during the demonstrations and in interviews with journalists. The action had mixed success; some employers raised wages after a day or two, but others blacklisted strikers and replaced them with female waiters. We do not know if the whistling continued.

In the spring of 1893, waiters across the nation struck again, this time in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and possibly other cities. There were many parallels to the strikes that took place 40 years earlier. Waiters reached out across racial lines and across different kinds of workplaces. In addition to their demands for higher wages and better conditions, they echoed previous demands by making another specific plea for dignity, this time decrying common regulations that waiters report for work without facial hair. (In the era before disposable razor blades, beards were more common, and a clean shave was often associated with effeminacy or immaturity.) As with the earlier strike, the results were mixed — some won concessions and others lost their jobs, sometimes to women.

Two other factors linked, and possibly enabled, the strikes of 1853 and 1893: Both occurred in years of economic crisis, and both coincided with World’s Fairs in one of the cities where waiters struck (New York in 1853, Chicago in 1893). These factors were significant. The fairs gave waiters in those cities special leverage — bosses needed to settle labor disputes quickly in order to take advantage of unprecedented tourist dollars. And it’s possible that the economic crises of 1853 and 1893 had the same impact as the one in 2008, driving more experienced or higher-status workers into jobs waiting tables, where they began to demand the wages and dignity they had grown accustomed to in previous careers.

One might conclude, therefore, that special conditions are necessary to rile restaurant workers into action. More clearly, these two strikes disproved the idea, common even among other service employees, that certain kinds of workers are just too difficult to organize.

In the early 20th century, waitresses followed their male counterparts into labor militancy. As Rutgers historian Dorothy Sue Cobble demonstrated in her 1991 book “Dishing It Out,” waitresses built strong union locals, first in Seattle in 1900, then spreading to Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, New York and most other major cities in America. Like men, they focused on both bread-and-butter issues — wages, benefits, working conditions — and the more intangible question of dignity, in this case fighting both managers and the sexism of their union brothers.

Since the 1970s, the strength of union waiters has declined along with the rest of the labor movement, but service employees like hotel chambermaids, janitors and home health care workers — many of them women and immigrants — continue to surprise the nation with their resolve and success. Fast-food workers are the latest in this list.

The possibilities of success for striking fast-food workers are better than at any time in the last 10 or 20 years. Service jobs are growing fast; the terms of employment and the working conditions in these jobs are largely awful; and the labor market is pushing older, more experienced and more militant workers into fast-food jobs. Even President Barack Obama wants to raise the minimum wage. Looking back to 1853 and 1893, the only precondition we’re missing now is a World’s Fair.

Daniel Levinson Wilk is an associate professor of American history at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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