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An Anti-Racist Restaurant Industry

As restaurant and service industry organizers it’s not only important but an absolute necessity to be forthright in our anti-racist politics. In order to see a shift in the means of production we must be able to connect our efforts to BLM, abolition, queer, and immigrant liberation.

The Dirty Laundry 

If you happen to wonder why then let’s first let’s lay it out plainly, racism is and has always been completely intertwined with the industry. From the creation of the sub minimum wage and its ties to slavery to racist myths about Chinese food. The myth about MSG, which is a flavor enhancer similar to salt, that says the food is prone to give you headaches and make you sick, a myth based in *checks notes* oh that’s right not science, just racism. We see similar trends with Mexican, Indian, African, Korean food, and other non white cultures. Of course, living in a capitalist society, wage theft and poor labor practices are almost a given in any industry, but we see this is grossly, disproportionately aggressive for Brown and Black folks. We also see a structure that sees a racial difference in who’s staffed where. White folk are more likely to hold managerial positions. In non Black or brown owned establishments we are likely to see less BIPOC folk in Front of House(FOH) positions such as hosts, servers, and bartenders and more likely to see them in the Back of House(BOH) such as Dishwasher, Prep and Line Cook positions. BOH is typically where pay is lower and hours are longer. The list goes on.

Last year, the George Floyd uprising started, which was fueled by abolitionist organizing, leading to a reckoning in many industries and their racist and anti-Black structures. If you thought the service industry was left out, oh boy howdy it sure wasn’t. In Chicago we saw the 86d list pop up detailing establishments that harbored white supremacist, sexist, queerphobic, or pro-cop environments. Though we saw places like Nini’s Deli and Fat Rice close, in a lot of cases this reckoning fizzled down to owners giving some woke statement or posting a black square on Instagram, providing no fundamental change. Of course this is not to downplay many of the very real victories that the abolitionist and BLM uprising gathered. However, it is painfully clear that seeking change from the good will of our bosses is gonna result in an all you can eat buffet of disappointment. 

So the question is, how do we organize in a way that not only addresses these racist structures but also makes a connection to abolition and actively abolish current structures? 

As a chef and BOH worker, it’s no secret that in most restaurants, bars, and etc., the BOH staff, and overall the backbone of these establishments are overwhelmingly Black, Brown, and immigrant. Knowing this makes it painstakingly clear any approach we take NEEDS to unify both houses. 

Last summer in Philadelphia we saw white supremacist vigilantes take the streets in Fishtown attacking anyone who looked “Antifa” or like a BLM activist. Under the guise of “protecting property” a certain Lebanese restaurant owner I worked for may have been featured in an article sympathizing with those vigilantes. The staff of that restaurant may have been talking amongst themselves to organize a response and demand some sort of justice with a major change in the restaurant. However, this thread of emails failed to reach any BOH employee, working or furloughed, for 2 weeks. I was the first one. When it finally reached the others there was a sense of discouragement especially considering the vast majority of Black staff was in the back. Due to this, among other reasons, it led nowhere before we could even begin a possible union conversation. This serves as a reminder to me to never allow that mistake to happen again.

I would be remiss however if I failed to mention that heteronormative norms also dominate both FOH and BOH. This creates an environment that quickly becomes a horror story for any queer folk or  women in this industry. Again, this is disproportionate for Black and Brown folks. Trans folks are subjected to a status quo that sees them harassed, invalidated, and worse. We know trans folks struggle to find housing from transphobic landlords. A 2015 study showed that at least 30% of trans folk have experienced homelessness at one point in their life, a metric that has since increased. For the unlucky few who step into a restaurant that is unaccepting, to put it lightly, death inches closer. I’d like take moment to praise Hash and other Queer owned restaurants, bars, and coffee houses. We must collectively reflect on the fact that they needed to be made in the first place.

It’s also important to point out that on the FOH end Black folks, specifically Black women are more likely to be tipped worse than White counterparts and receive more frequent levels of harassment. We have seen an increase in this during the pandemic era. Through a One Fair Wage Tipped Worker Survey Data we see a few stark differences. The report says that tips have decreased since COVID-19 by at least 50% or more. This decrease indicates that 78% of all workers are impacted, but the number is higher for Black workers at 88%. This report shows that workers experienced or witnessed hostile behavior from customers in response to staff enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols. The results are similar with it impacting 84% all workers, and  86% Black Workers. It also showcases that on a weekly basis 62% of all workers,  and 73% of Black workers have received a decreased tip from a customer in response to enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols. The toll this has and continues to take on people cannot be ignored. Being paycheck to paycheck while exploited by your boss combined with this level of contempt from patrons is enough to make anyone leave this industry.

On the flipside when we allow racist ideas to fester in our workplace customers, specifically Black customers, are also recipients of this. The notion that Black patrons don’t tip well runs rampant in restaurants resulting in negligent or even offensive service. Whether we’re ready to talk about it or not, frankly, doesn’t matter. It’s inexcusable.

Acknowledging this, I’d like to point out that of course unionizing makes all of this a lot more feasible, but as our comrades from Colectivo and Amazon showed, it’s not an easy fight, and always an uphill battle. Since the weeks following the results of the Amazon campaign we’ve been made aware of how a capitalist powerhouse can spend literal tens of thousands of dollars a day to squash campaigns, having paid anti-union lectures, intimidation phone calls, to posting anti-union propaganda in bathroom stalls. Colectivo shows us you don’t need to be Amazon to engage in these tactics. Colectivo paid LRI, a “Union Avoidance” firm, $1500 a day. Furthermore, oftentimes just saying ”unionize” to people seeking help is dismissive and also reads as “figure it out yourself”. So while unions are a powerful tool for the proletariat they aren’t our only one or the only source for wins.

Direct and Loud Demands

Now while I love talking shit about the industry as much as the next person I also would like to take the time to lay out some demands.

Organizing to remove the tipped sub minimum wage and overall raising the minimum wage would inherently benefit BIPOC workers seeing as they are disproportionately the least paid workers in the industry. Thus creating a more equitable workplace. This will also lessen the amount of sexual harassment that takes place. In states that have the sub minimum wage women, especially Black women, are subjected higher levels of sexual harassment. The connection is clear. The client has the power over the server because they determine their pay for that day. The patrons become empowered to make these assaults without fear of repercussions.

A way I believe we can connect to abolition is we can take steps toward giving workers a vote  around hiring. This could help in making sure previous convictions and one’s identity does not keep folks from getting hired or dictate what position they are able to get. For example, a formerly incarcerated person getting a low wage for whatever arbitrary reason, or a Black man applying for a server job but getting offered a dishwasher or line cook position instead.

Another demand should be getting our establishments to cut ties with calling the police and surveillance. I know from experience in River North (a neighborhood in Chicago grossly in need of looting, I mean redistributing) has restaurants and bars that are prone to call the police on people they deem “suspicious”. When you have White and White-collar-job dominated neighborhoods suspicious often equates to not white. Just as bad is calling the police on folks who are homeless. Mental health issues increase among the homeless community, as do access to facilities for water and cooked food, and when they have a crisis the result of them being policed can lead to jailing, brutalization, or worse, death.

Another demand that would pave way for further progress is making sure workplaces do not use E- Verify. For folks unfamiliar I wont link them because fuck the Ops. E-Verify, established in 1996, is a DHS website that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees, both U.S. and foreign citizens, to work in the U.S. Surveillance technology must always be opposed. What this does is put undocumented workers into much more exploitable positions whether it be being paid under the table or being denied jobs that may have provided higher wages and healthcare. This also creates an environment where your livelihood solely depends on if the employer decides to stop paying you or report you to ICE. This strips the worker of any power to defend themselves. 

A Different Vision

Something I’ve been thinking about more and more is what if we built our own place?

One of the key tenants to abolition is to create a world that makes police and policing obsolete. While the service industry isn’t normally seen as a direct pillar of police, I believe the argument can be made that it serves a role in maintaining a society of policing. This is done by keeping workers in poverty, reducing access to health and child care, use of surveillance and so on.

I’ve heard it said that this industry is a sort of safety net for people, a statement that I hate when I think of my growling stomach in between paychecks and with a cracked windshield that turned 3 this year. However, what if it truly was a safety net? What would that look like? We must not allow the decrepit state of the status quo to strip us of our Hope.

As Mariame Kaba states in We Do This ’Til We Free Us : 

Hope is a discipline and that we have to practice it every single day. Because in the  world we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the  time, that nothing is going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It  feels sometimes that it’s proven in various different ways, so I really get that. Understand  why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way, and I  choose to act in a different way. I choose to trust people until they prove themselves  untrustworthy.” 

What if we took our vision, our imagination, anti-racist, anti-capitalist politics, use these as our lense. We could use that and create our own place. Somewhere that is not just occupying space in a community but fully committed to it. A place whose hierarchy isn’t vertically structured. This place could be a hub for other organizers, a place of political growth, where we can acquire living wages for all workers and health insurance. Ive taken alot of inspiration on this idea from Reem Assil a Palestinian Syrian chef in Oakland, who was previously a labor organizer. During the pandemic she transitioned her restaurant to a worker owned model. I bring this up not as a replacement for organizing within existing workplaces but as an addition to it.

In an interview by Alicia Kennedy she goes through her experience throughout this transition. Within this interview she asserts her unapologetic political stances and is not silent about her identity as a Palestinian women.

We can also look to the past for a radical lens for what restaurants, cafes, and bars can look like. During the Vietnam War era radical coffee houses began popping up in California near military bases dubbed “G.I. Coffee Houses“. Local activists alongside G.I. Movement activists worked together to strategically place these close enough for active duty members and vets to visit but far enough for military intervention with the intent to create solidarity in the anti-war movement. This network of shops served as a hub for activists, a place to organize, plan actions, educate, spread political propaganda, and aid in getting lawyers for arrested activists.

While these coffee houses began to dwindle for a myriad of reasons, what remains is an incredible impact on what service industry can do when radicals hold autonomy. While there are mistakes we must learn from, what we should take away from this is, it’s been done before and it can be done again. When service industry folks who are anti-imperialism, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchy, anti-racist work collectiveize and hold autonomy in coffee houses, fast and full service restaurants, and so on, what we see is a powerful and beautiful tool for revolutionary movements.

Of course the ways that we go about anti-racist organizing within the industry will show up differently from place to place. This organizing must always come from a framework tied to BLM and Abolition movements if we truly want to see liberation for all. When Black folks win, we all do.