Over at Recomposition: Notes for a New Workerism an anarchist hospitality worker in New Zealand shares their story of life on the job. Having been a food service employee myself, I can relate to the profound alienation of that particular industry. Hospitality work is something I hope to never be reduced to again.
It’s not that preparing and serving food is inherently degrading work; in fact, I love that aspect of the job. The co-workers in restaurants frequently develop close bonds working in a fast-paced environment and doing a job well is rewarding in itself. As the author at Recomposition rightly points out, some tasks like chopping vegetables are even pleasantly relaxing.
However, the downsides that inevitably plague food service are the boss, the management, and the culture of entitlement from customers (which are brilliantly summarized in the pamphlet “Abolish Restaurants“). Minor indignities are par for the course when you’re a wage slave at a restaurant. It’s an entry-level job (for the most part), and in an economy full of competition for employment the boss can use your precarious position as leverage to pressure you into otherwise unacceptable situations. I remember being scheduled for a shift at a pizza restaurant an hour before the shift was supposed to start (which ruined my day and wasn’t an isolated incident). I’ve had a boss forge my signature on official documents. I worked a temporary part-time position for five months (I was working two other temporary part-time food service jobs simultaneously) where I was expected to show up for work at the lunch rush every day and was dismissed whenever there was a lull. The minimum wage I reserved for these two hours of work a day barely covered my expense paying for lunch myself, not to mention my commute. I’ve even worn a work uniform with a cartoon caricature of my boss embroidered on the chest. At times working at a restaurant feels like a humiliating parody of life.
What I love the most about the fellow worker’s piece at Recomposition is their observation about the blackmail that comes from our own sense of sympathy being used against us. This practice is all too common among small business owners, though rarely acknowledged outside of the workplace.
Many small businesses foster an atmosphere where you feel the business may be constantly on the edge, so it is not uncommon for staff to help out by working overtime without pay, not asking for pay rises, more shifts and, shamefully, they say nothing when someone is either paid peanuts or fired on a whim. What’s more it is not uncommon for the boss to actually spend the most time at the workplace when it is a small business, so you get to know them personally. Inevitably this complicates things as it is difficult to stick up for yourself when you feel sorry for your boss and when your co-workers identify with the workplace.
Though humans tend to identify with those they work with, it’s sometimes important to remember that the employee/employer relationship is economic and antagonistic. The employee contributes more value to the business than they receive in compensation and abdicates many of their basic rights when at the job. The only real power granted to the employee as an unorganized laborer is the right to withdraw labor, at which point the worker is faced with the problem of unemployment. At my first job with a family-run restaurant, I learned from my coworkers that in order to survive in the workplace I needed to not stick up for myself. I wouldn’t want to hurt the business, would I? And as junior employee, I’d be the one to bear the brunt of the belt-tightening in terms of longer more intensive shifts for less pay.
That lesson never sat well with me. Yet, organizing that workplace seemed impossible since the other workers had such a cooperative attitude towards the boss. In a tight economy like the one we face at present, more small business use this emotional blackmail to squeeze more value out of the employee’s labor while also avoiding demands for workplace improvement.
Organizing workers in a restaurant faces challenges stemming from the small, temporary workforce, the intimate relations with bosses and managers, the fast pace of labor, and the economic precarity of the business itself. Here in the U.S. new labor organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United employ a variety of strategies ranging from workplace organizing to litigation to end exploitation. These organized above-ground reforms are necessary but the alienation of restaurant work won’t end until we stop the culture of capitalist food production, which will happen when humans unite for common good rather than value-production. To quote “Abolish Restaurants”:
We aren’t just fighting for representation in or control over the production process. Our fight isn’t against the act of chopping vegetables or washing dishes or pouring beer or even serving food to other people. It is with the way all these acts are brought together in a restaurant, separated from other acts, become part of the economy, and are used to expand capital. The starting and ending point of this process is a society of capitalists and people forced to work for them. We want an end to this. We want to destroy the production process, as something outside and against us. We’re fighting for a world where our productive activity fulfills a need and is an expression of our lives, not forced on us in exchange for a wage–a world where we produce for each other directly and not in order to sell to each other. The struggle of restaurant workers is ultimately for a world without restaurants or workers.