Are we starting to see light at the end of the tunnel?
The number of administered vaccine doses is slowly rising (195 million in the US, at time of writing per the CDC) while lockdowns across the globe appear to ease and fall away on the spring breeze.
In their wake is revealed… the wild uncertainty of new COVID variants and devastated economies.
For better and worse, the one thing it seems safe to say is that everyone is ready to put the pandemic out of mind, at least while the weather is nice.
Patio season awaits the guest, but what awaits the workers?
For many restaurant workers this state of affairs means (if you were lucky enough to be gainfully unemployed during the last year) getting ready to find a job in what’s left of the industry.
For many restaurant workers this also means remembering how much this industry delights in kicking us in the teeth (hopefully not literally but we wouldn’t be surprised to hear from someone to whom this had happened, non-figuratively).
Are there alternatives to being subjected to those same terrible, exploitative practices we’d all come to cope with pre-pandemic?
In Washington, D.C., one major proposal currently being pushed for in the Senate is the Protect the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act).
If passed, the PRO Act would be the most sweeping reform of American labor law in nearly a century and provide desperately needed protections to anyone looking to organize.
Or anyone who just wants the basic protections of an employer who can be held legally liable for blatant disregard for their workers rights.
That many people and organizations are pushing for this legislation is heartening and necessary.
The truly absurd obstacles that companies are allowed to put in the way of would-be unionizers has been on full display in the failed Amazon warehouse drive in Bessemer, AL.
It would be a historic win to tear those barriers down.
But beyond the open question of passing such legislation in the current Senate (the PRO Act having already cleared the Democrat-controlled House) is the question of how any of this applies to us in the service industry.
What passes for labor rights in the United States, defanged legislation that favors capital interests, however anemic in other industries, is nearly non-existent in the restaurant industry.
We’ve all seen people without documentation bullied by the owners.
Had tips stolen to cover some mistake by the GM.
Been asked to clock out and keep working right when we are supposed to hit overtime.
When it’s a struggle to get paid not even your fair share, but the amount you are supposedly legally, contractually, obliged to make, it becomes difficult to imagine the law showing up to defend you during your embryonic union drive.
Clearly we need to start small.
To work on seeing each other with empathy, as fellow travelers, and a group with a common interest regardless of whether we work in a restaurant proper or deliver goods to and from the kitchen, or if our plans are to stay in the industry for a few months or a few decades.
We need to start talking about what we like in this industry (flexibility, creativity, thinking we’re all cool punk renegade outcasts) and what we could do without (long hours, low pay, harassment and bullying, a community that romanticizes substance abuse).
Paradoxically, perhaps what we as restaurant workers need to do is look to things like the PRO Act or an actual end to COVID.
To start realizing that situations can and do change even if it takes hard work. When we are asked to clock out and keep working, or when a manager is screaming, or our pay is stolen, we must see the small steps we take in standing up and saying this isn’t right, comforting a coworker or demanding an answer as us inching closer to a more just industry.
To see these actions as building towards a shared future.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But restaurant workers are a scrappy bunch.
We’ll just have to illuminate things ourselves.