Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Unionizing in Restaurants

I have finally gotten around to reading the new Colorlines and I am excited to say that my love for the magazine continues to be justified. This issue, unofficially dubbed the “Women and Children” issue also relied heavily on issues of immigration, specifically employment. The article that caught my eye immediately focused on employment discrimination between white and Latino staff in restaurants.

Before moving to the Big Apple I worked in a restaurant in St. Paul, where the counter staff was overwhelmingly white and the kitchen staff was almost entirely Latino. Of course, there were a few exceptions on either end but the white kitchen staff never stayed over two months and the counter staff of color were all inevitably fired. The extraordinary differences in how staff at the different ends of the establishment were paid and treated were a source of extreme discomfort for all of us. The servers and cooks all knew what was happening was wrong, but being dependent on a job that had no security, severance pay or any form of compensation made the counter staff anxious to complain. On the other hand much of the Latino staff were working on expired Visas or had entered the U.S. without “proper” documents, and complaints could lead to all forms of legal repercussions. Even attempts to improve work that didn’t involve the management, such as joint language sessions where English-speaking employees learned Spanish and Spanish-speaking employees learned English, all failed.

Yes, those of us with the privilege of our skin, our education level, and our language should have spoken up. But unless we did so in a unionized effort the results would have resulted either in our firing, or in repercussions against the Latino kitchen staff – under the assumption that they would have asked the white counter staff to speak up. Also, though, I dislike the paradigm that the white staff should speak up "on behalf of" the Latino staff. Despite language barriers, the Latino chefs were perfectly able to speak for themselves. The fact that they didn't want the white staff to say anything, should have been enough of a deterrent. The few times we spoke together or against a new practice, we saw serious repercussions, I had received repercussions for speaking up on multiple occasions. This doesn’t make it right, but I want to put the context there. In this issue of ColorLines, however, a better option is offered through the organization Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York.

True, like all unions joining runs a lot of risks, but unlike (historically) many other unions, ROCNY has a focus in race differences, especially on Latino staff. Last year ROCNY sent 43 “matched pairs” (I assume this means an equally employable white man and Latino man) into NYC restaurants and found some unsurprising results. For instance, white men were not hired for the “less desirable” positions of runner, buser, or dishwasher as they were not as “’willing’ as Latinos to stay at the same low-wage job” according to the ColorLines report. Yes, it appears that it was all men, which reveals another prejudice in service work (for straight outfits, it's women in the front men in the back) but I have hopes that ROCNY will address that as well. Now that the ROCNY has this information they will be approaching restaurant employees to unionize and fight for better wages and more equitable hiring practices. Even better though, the organizing won’t be just in New York, but they will be approaching employees across the country.

I know a lot of my white friends work in restaurants…and I know we all are aware of the racial politics without ever saying a word about it. So come on…reach out to this organization and let them know you want to be counted too! And if any of my former Latino comrades read my blog (I know, I should learn Spanish and translate it!) I hope this organization can inspire and empower you!

Edit: I just noticed that I had written "I know a lot of my white friends work in restaurants still". So I erased the "still" because I didn't want to judge the decision or the necessity of food service. However, I want to acknowledge here that I did make that judgement, and that I made it specifically for my white friends. So, here it is in an edit: my judgement and my prejudice.


shiva said...

Have you seen this?

Mik Danger said...

Wow! i had not seen this, but I spent a lot of time reading it this weekend and it's phenomenal. Thank you so much!

Reading it brought up a lot of terrible memories, but I like that the guide offered resistance resources for people outside of food service.