We know we have the power

A restaurant worker describes how co-workers got organized to demand changes in their poor working conditions--and stand up for dignity on the job.

Struggling to make ends meet with restaurant work

I WORK at a restaurant that's part of an international retail corporation, where the CEO makes almost $2 million in compensation--not including bonuses. Meanwhile, employees like us struggle to make ends meet.

My co-workers and I have faced several problems since we've worked here. The primary concern we've had is the withholding of tips, which management defers to paychecks paid out up to two weeks later. This is legal but not common practice in most restaurants. The company was interested in implementing this practice in all its restaurants, in order to profit off the interest.

Additionally, there were repeated mistakes made by the payroll department with those very same paychecks, forcing each employee to individually review their check with management in order to find and correct mistakes. Not surprisingly, the mistakes always favored the restaurant, not the employees.

Management also didn't supply the staff with a tip log, which is illegal under the Wage Theft Protection Act of 2011. This made it impossible for us to independently calculate what we were actually owed.

The staff had also been complaining about safety and health issues--slippery floors, steep staircases and stairs that throw you forward as you carry heavy weights, putting strain on your knees and endangering you as you struggle to maintain balance.

A door into the bar area from the street has no vestibule or curtain, so a gust of cold air blows through every time it opens, and the bar stays at a very low temperature. The staff also complained about the lack of a "family meal," which is a standard benefit for restaurant employees. We were only receiving a discount on food, which we still could barely afford on our low wages and tips, during shifts that range between eight to 10 hours.

The busser team, which spends more than 20 percent of their time on prep work and not generating tips, is also paid the tipped employees' wage--$5 an hour. This is also illegal. The host staff was receiving $9 in hourly compensation, and also getting tipped out by the servers.

Because of the low level of tips being generated while business was still slow, their percentage of tips was very small. Additionally, their "full-time" position gave them roughly 28-29 hours per week. This was far from a livable wage.

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WE BEGAN to discuss options for collective action, including some talk of a possible walkout, as many felt that there was nothing to lose. We decided to start by writing a letter of demands to the corporate office, making it clear that they would not be able to continue to ignore the issues we raised.

After drafting a first edition of the letter, it was circulated among the whole front-of-the-house staff--i.e., the bartenders, servers, hosts, bussers and runners. People contributed their thoughts and debated about what was non-negotiable, what was less crucial, how to phrase the different demands and what we hoped to gain out of this course of action, plus what we might need to do next. And what we would be willing to do.

Each team on the staff elected representatives according to the size of the team. Within a week, the representatives were selected--one from the host and busser teams, three for the servers and two from the bartender team. A meeting was planned to go over the letter and decide the next steps.

Before the letter was sent to the corporate offices, the vice president and the CEO, each paragraph was revised and amended. We also discussed the possible outcomes and prospects. It was hard to tell at that point what would be the response from the corporation, and how fast it would respond, if at all.

We decided that should it become necessary, we would reach out to employees of the other restaurants across the country, as the policies being practiced here were to be implemented on a national level.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an organization that dedicates itself to the improvement of wages and working conditions for restaurant workers across the U.S., assisted in informing us of specific legalities that protected our rights.

The very next day, the letter was circulated again. We obtained 53 signatures out of a staff of 57 people. On Monday, the letter was sent out. On Tuesday, a notice was given to us by management that all of the corporate higher-ups, the CEO included, were flying in from Seattle on Wednesday and planning to meet with us the following day.

The corporate representative started out the meeting by thanking the staff for the letter. They apologized for what they termed their "missteps." They went on to address every single issue raised in the letter, the most pressing of which would be rectified immediately (namely, the tips distribution and the tip log).

Most all the demands were won, though it still remains to be seen what the exact terms of compensation will be for the host team. Meetings to negotiate those terms have already begun, and things will definitely change for the better.

The busser team was afforded a $12 an hour wage, but only for the first three hours of work, as they prepare the restaurant. They also decided to give all of us a $500 bonus, which was received within five days of the meetings.

The safety issues are under investigation and will hopefully be resolved quickly. Family meal is now being served--however, it's only once a day at a time that is difficult for workers to take advantage of. So again the staff must raise its voice.

What we learned here was that much can be achieved with unity among a restaurant staff. It was difficult at times. There were arguments about which demands took precedence and which should be omitted, what would be the best course of action, and about the significance of utilizing democratic processes as opposed to backdoor decision-making.

A couple of years ago, this might not have happened. But today, after the rise of the Occupy movement and other signs of discontent, workplace discussions are much more political--much more about "us vs. them." Restaurant workers who are tipped employees have traditionally felt like they are different than other working-class people.

But as we organized ourselves in this dispute, people regularly referenced fast-food workers, and even discussed Wal-Mart workers. We saw ourselves in the wider context. We had the opportunity to talk about the kind of power we have, how the restaurant could not function without us. More demands are being raised, and we know now that we have the ability to win our rights.