Eat the Rich!
(we'll fix 'em how ya like 'em)
From Claustrophibia #9 Spring/Summer 1999
Restaurant work, the culture of restaurant workers, has its own
peculiarities. There's probably not alot of other jobs like it.
Usually you work with quite a few other people and so there is a
definite social quality to the work. At the same time its a
pretty broad mix of people that work in any single restaurant. And most
definitely, restaurant work is one of the least formal work environments
in regards to breaks, benefits, pay, and hierarchies.
For a couple years the two of us worked in a restaurant in Baltimore
that was a good example of all these things. Each shift had from 10 to
20 people working; and any one of those individuals was not guaranteed
to have too much in common with anyone else working on that shift;
there‚d be a 35 year old bartender going to med school, a parolee from a
half way house stuck washing dishes, art students waiting tables, the
culinary college students with their professional threads and personal
cutlery sets, a couple alcoholics working for the weekend, some plain
old working stiffs, some ex-hustlers (for the time being), a drag queen, etc.
Despite this - or because of it - the scene was always real social. All
kinds of things went on that didn‚t have shit to do with getting the
work done, but had everything to do with us enjoying ourselves as much
as we could. Music blasted in the kitchen as loud as we could manage
it - fights over who got to play their shit were of course half the fun.
Smoking weed in various corners of the building, eating for free and
hooking up friends with free food, etc. For us time enough to clean
always meant time enough to lean, talk and blow off work as long as you
It was the general informal nature of the environment that gave room for
these minor but significant conquests. It was a fundamental part of the
culture of the place that was basically respected by everyone who worked
there. And that‚s cuz it was this little bit of freedom that made up
half the pay. Wages started at the minimum - $4.75 when i started
washing dishes. And they didn‚t go much higher than that no matter how
long you been there. One woman who‚d been keeping the whole kitchen
together for 8 years never got above $8/hr. Of course, there were no
benefits‚ in the proper sense of the word - no 'profit sharing', no
401K, no medical/dental programs, no paid vacation or sick days. And
there were no formally observed work breaks.
What is fundamental is that lacking any formal structure to guarantee us
our due‚ we who worked there had established - individually and
collectively - our own forms of work regulation and provision of
benefits. This direct and informal method of addressing the eternal
conflict between the employer and the employed was the central dynamic
of the conflicts which were to develop as the two of us, along with not
a few others set out to wage class warfare on our sworn enemies - the
soft-handed, slouching, dull-hearted rich.
The idea of a union had been presented once before while we were working
there but had never took hold, most likely due to the mix of workers at
that time - decidely more middle class, timid in the face of a ruckus.
When the idea came up six months later there was enough venom swirling
in the mix of worker conversations, management newsletters, and the
tense encounters with swaggering authorities. There was also a more
independent minded body of workers, less disciplined, who had less in
common with those who filled management positions. Moments like these
develop on their own. For some reason management gets the idea to crack
down, to issue obnoxious decrees, to attempt to intimidate workers and
to make attacks on forms of worker autonomy (banning the radio in the
kitchen, for example). That's the time you think to push the situation further.
In this stimulating and entertaining tumult a few of us again proposed
the idea of a union of some type, a more formal, collective response to
the arrogance of those whose only job was to whore us. We left the
details of the type of union open to debate though what was fundamental
to us was that the union be of the workers making and under the workers
As we talked to people we found a majority enthusiastic towards the
proposal, eager to stick it to the owners, at least just a little bit,
and in the process get a better living out of it. Everyone was looking
for more money. Everyone had some type of issue with how the place was
run and for some people winning some type of power to run the day to day
operations was a strong motivation for establishing a union. There was
a third group who had a strong feeling - just on principle and an
inspired malice - to disrupt the smooth functioning of business. And
honestly, all the original instigators came with this bent.
To get the ball rolling we started weekly meetings at the nearby public
library to build consensus around structure and demands. A woman who
worked the sandwhiches and salads had recently joined the IWW and
proposed we make it a Wobbly shop. The Industrial Workers of the World
were the famously independant and militant union of the first decades of
the century (though their current activity is only a shell of the old).
Some workers would have joined one of the mainstream unions and others
were suspicious of any kind of structure above them.
The two of us developed a proposal which became one of the main themes
of the campaign‚. We wanted to equalize all wages at $6 and
share tips among all workers. We calculated that this would increase
wages significantly for the majority of workers, and only slightly
decrease wages for two or three bartenders and waitors. We were able to
get support for this proposal from just about everyone. What also made
the proposal appealing was its social content which was to break down
divisions between floor and kitchen staffs which was a big source of
conflict. Any tipped worker wanted a busy shift and had an interest in
kitchen staff working hard for them; kitchen workers had no such
interest however. It could really get you pissed those busy days spent
sweating your ass off in the kitchen for $35 while waitors who worked a
shorter shift walked with $80 or more.
We did not seek National Labor Relations Board recognition to then enter
into 'collective bargaining' under state supervision. We wanted instead
to break their power with our power - the disruption of the work
routine. We took some ideas from an IWW pamphlet on direct action
tactics and developed some of our own. Around the same time the IWW
nationally was doing actions against Applebee's restaurant chain that
had fired a wobbly organizer. Their main tactic was to fill the
restaurant with workers' friends who ordered only a coffee and sat
getting refills for hours. The friends would then leave a big tip for
the waitors so the only ones getting stuck was the restaurant. By doing
this at peak rush hours they could cut deep into company profits. We
liked this one also cuz it meant we would do almost no work and the
place would be full of our friends. There were other tactics dreamed up
and talked about, sabotage of equipment, refusing to make customers pay... This scheming was itself a source of unity and
good will among
workers. It connected everyone in a great plot. It buoyed our
self-esteem and trust for each other.
But all these questions soon became moot. The library meetings quickly
exposed themselves as being unpopular. Who wanted to spend another hour
or two after work talking about work - and not get paid for it?! Over
about a month each meeting brought from two to ten people, but each time
a different two or ten, so that the same diffused dialog remained
without any possibility for a broad collective voice. On the surface
one might conclude that it was the failure of the workers to take action
against their exploitation that caused this effort to fail. And yet
that's not the case. Workers made numerous efforts to Œimprove their
lot‚ - right or wrong - a union was not one of them.
Direct Action Gets the Goods!
That's one of the slogans of the IWW. And it became apparent that it
was also the slogan of a good many workers. Direct action just means
taking measures to correct a problem yourself (whether as an individual
or a group). It means not begging some external power or authority to
fix it for you. It means seizing some measure of power for ourselves.
And that‚s what workers did in what was an unprecedented moment of
The cynicism workers held towards management and owners at this moment
reached such a height that people who had never before even thought of
stealing from work as an option all of a sudden were struck with
brilliant epiphanies - „I could just take this shit!‰ Those who were
already actively aware of this simply escalated their campaigns of
thievery. It became a challenge to ones pride to make sure one got away
with as much as possible. And it became a requirement to respond to
every indignity of work with another robbery.
Of course, restaurants are ideal for this form of worker resistance.
They got it all - all kinds of food, liquor and beer, silverware,
kitchen utensils, and liquor and beer! One fellow who was quite a good
waitor started walking out with entire wheels of cheese, bunt pans and
other large and conspicuous objects. Right in front of other workers,
who had no desire or interest to turn him in for it. No doubt half of
them were busy stuffing their pants with bags of chocolate chips or
bottles of hot sauce.
This became the most significant expression of worker dissatisfaction,
but more importantly the vehicle of worker empowerment. It gained all
who partook some immediate and valuable rewards and it cost us nothing.
For this reason it was more popular than the union, for what did the
union offer immediately? Spend time and energy and get fired? What
guarantees were there that it would pay off?
It Spirals Down
Ultimately the whole thing fizzled out. As we said, the possibility of
such a combative attitude to the management arose out of a particular
set of conditions, one of the main ones being the group of workers and
the culture they had developed amongst themselves. But because of high
turnover in restaurants this condition for organizing was undercut - of
course with management help. Lots of people left - some were fired cuz
of dope or „bad attitudes‰ or technicalities, others left cuz they
couldn‚t stand the hostilities or found better jobs. As the staff was
slowly turned over new rules and strict authority were enforced. The
new workforce was disciplined in a way that would have provoked the old
one into open insurrection.
In the period since many perks have been cut - there‚s no radio in the
kitchen, very limited free food, .....
Gains of the struggle, contradictions of the union
As both collectivists and thieves we wanted both a union and
self-enrichment at the expense of the owners. We don't feel that this
experience showed a necessary opposition between these paths. For us
they both must go the same place and we ought to walk both of them as
need be. As we've suggested there was a social spirit to the stealing.
Some people bragged to each other what they were able to make off with,
which was an encouragement to others and itself a boost to a certain
rebelious worker culture. Its often the case that one is only succesful
at getting away with it because of the complicity of other workers.
Our vision of the union had the same goal as our theft - to take back
what was stolen.
We refused to take action for other workers. We always insisted that we
take action for ourselves along with other workers. We had no desire to
lead anyone or to speak for anyone. To inspire and provoke, always!
but not to lead. This was half the reason the situation got stalled. A
strong majority supported the idea of a union. They supported the idea
of collective action to improve conditions. But to create that vehicle
of collective action themselves was something most people felt unable or
unwilling to do. If there had been one of the "business unions"
organizing the place, they'red likely be a union there now. The type of
union where you sign-up, kick out dues, and let the slickee boys talk
for you. The type of union where you have no more power than you had
before, but you might have better pay. We had no interest in this
happening. Of course the business unions had no interest in this either, cuz a cut of our measly wages wasn't gonna make
them any richer.
Why didn't people who would have signed up with a union, start it
themselves? People are lazy? That's a lazy answer, really. Its hard
to say precisely why a diverse group of people does anything, cuz its
alot of different individual motivations determining the situation at
the same time. But in general i think the union failed on the basis of
mistrust. That mistrust goes in a couple directions. People don't have
enough trust in each other to set out on such a long and difficult
venture. We feel each other is just out for self and its hard to
seriously imagine all the motherfuckers at your job uniting in some great
spirit of unity. There's also a mistrust of what role the union would
play. There is the warranted suspicion of corruption that people have
learned to hold towards unions and that bosses have learned to exploit.
We had already developed our own mistrust of a
formal union in its potential to become another force in disciplining workers.
For us the only good use of a union is to help people steal back as much
as possible. But this goal gets muddled in the day to day application.
Like we said, one of the motivations of some folks was to have power
over the way the place was run, to make the job less stressful. That's
an understandable motivation but it soon gets caught up in a trap of
taking responsibility for the smooth functioning of the business, which
is the same as taking responsibility for the smooth functioning of our
own exploitation. We have no interest in doing the bosses job for them.
The hard workers get upset when the slackers don't do their job cuz it
makes more work for them they say. And the neat freaks get pissed off
cuz the slobs don't clean up enough. When the union gets caught in the
resolution of these conflicts it runs a great danger of becoming just
another level of management. As we saw this tendency develop in some of
the ideas people spoke of we began to get nervous about the role an
entrenched formal union might come to play.
The union we dreamed of, whose seeds we were trying to spread was more a practice of solidarity with each other than an
institution with membership rolls and stewards. It was a lived union of people, a commitment to each other through the day
to day bullshit of work. If you're a leftist you'd call it 'class consciousness' like knowing which side you were on and feeling
strong in standing up for your side. The point of this unity was not to create a "scene" where everyone held the same
"culture" and as a result were "united". We love the random assortment of people (lots of them big freaks) who come to
work in restaurants or any other shit job. What the union is there to do is defend our right to live on the job, our right to be
lazy fucks, essentially to collect our check every friday regardless. Like what does everyone do when the boss won't let a
woman have a decent break and a clean spot to nurse her baby? When we really have our union noone thinks up totally
bullshit excuses why this is acceptable just to cover up their fear of authority.
The effort could be seen as an abject failure. We lost our jobs, the
workplace is now highly regimented at the same low pay. This battle was
perhaps fated to be lost but its the war that we're concerned with
winning. If anyone learned that stealing from work is only just, if
anyone was able to dream new dreams of revenge against the bosses, if
anyone caught a buzz and got hooked on the high of fighting back against
the degrading tyrannies of every day life - then the conditions of the
next battle are that much more in our favor.
Eat the Rich: Ideas for Worker Power in Restaurants
The world is ours. It is an Eden for our exploration. And everything
around us came from our labor, but it's not us who controls the use of
our labor. Everywhere our work is turned against us, for it is used
only to make our enemies rich. When we make the decision about how hard
to work, how much to give the bosses, and when we begin to seize the
fruit of our labor (that's everything around us), then we start to see
what life could really be. Eat the rich! That means take back
everything they have taken from us - which is everything they have. The
world is ours - if we wake up and take it!
*Work is a wonderful place to rob the rich. And restaurants are one of
the best places to work to rob. No class-conscious restaurant worker
should ever be seen in a grocery store! And their friends should be
seen there only rarely. There are thousands of opportunities to feed
the hungry and just as many great gifts one can give a friend out of the stockroom.
*A kitchen or a factory floor are each designed to force work out of us,
and yet everyday we make them places of our own use: talking with other
workers, making plans for the evening or weekend, running independant
businesses, resting, eating, smoking, flirting, etc...