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Pride & Possibilities

We work in restaurants because we need a paycheck. Some of us love the work and feel in our bones that this is our chosen trade. Others have taken the job willing to hire on the spot. But the reason we are employed is because we must work to live. These jobs add enormous value to our cultural fabric, yet they are precarious and often disposable to the people who are in them. 


At best, our jobs create unshakable bonds between us and our co-workers. A type of relationship you can only forge through the battle of a terribly busy night. At worst, they leave us exhausted from turnaround shifts, neglecting our health because we have no insurance, scrambling to pick up extra shifts so that the ends can meet, never knowing when the next day off will come. 


We want our jobs to be bearable. We want more control over our schedules. We want hours that allow us to still have lives. We want respect. We want a workplace where every person is safe from gender oppression and from racial discrimination. These demands are more than reasonable, and they are winnable. And we will fight for them. 


For us at The Dish, our insistence that restaurants should be just and safe for the people who run them is tied to our conviction that everyone deserves to be fed. Period. And the elaborate, interesting, exciting meals that are currently reserved only for those who can afford them, should be experienced by all. We organize to address the inadequacies in our own treatment because we – and everyone else – should have better quality of life, a living wage, health care, and, of course, the occasional elaborate feast with those we hold near and dear.  


While the restaurant can be the site of bonding and enjoyment, let’s appreciate its dual nature for a moment. It is where people come to get sustenance. It is a hub for communities to thrive. A place to break bread and discuss thoughts and desires or have a hard conversation that needs to happen. It brings us comfort and joy. It allows a degree of creativity, where cooks and bartenders experiment with different ingredients to share. 


But in a profit driven system, the restaurant is one thing above all else – a miniscule factory where workers produce a product to be made and sold. It exists to generate enough profit to keep it going, or it will go under. Whether we are conscious of it or not, this taints the experience from preparation to consumption for all involved. This helps us understand why restaurants are a living hell to work in. 


Maybe this also allows us to start thinking about possibilities for changing them, and changing the way we think about food consumption in general? What if we went away from the factory model and instead thought of a model where food was a basic entitlement and an integral part of how people interact with each other? 


Along with universal medicine and housing, shouldn’t restaurants also be socialized? They could be located squarely in the public sector with centralized labor standards and collectively bargained union contracts. Imagine if it was akin to public education – a social welfare that must be provided to all. 


Some might argue that this would take the spice out of dining out, that it would no longer allow for the creative ingenuity of culinary art and service. Of course that is one possibility. Our vision, however, is not of cafeterias, but of thriving community centers that have license to explore different cuisines and ways of running things. If restaurant workers in every community were provided with public funds to provide food as a public service, we could come up with all kinds of genius arrangements. Maybe food service is the public sector fight of our times? It’s a thought experiment worth exploring. 


Like so many things under a for-profit system, just because we’ve come up with a simple solution does not mean it is easy to achieve. Yet, we’ve seen a glimpse into these possibilities. 


Some years back a prolonged blackout consumed NYC and surrounding areas. Every restaurant had to get rid of their food before it spoiled. That one night, August 13, 2003, every corner was filled with people communally eating prepared food for free. This wasn’t fun for the people who worked in the places, but it plants the seed of a novel idea.


Or remember Occupy Wall Street? Where any day of the week you could go down to Zuccotti Park and have a hot meal? Every workers’ occupation or prolonged strike has devised creative means of collective sustenance. 


The pandemic could have been an opportunity for rethinking the nature of the restaurant. If people can’t go out to eat, why can’t a restaurant be subsidized by the state to provide take out meals to people in neighborhoods? Makes good sense, doesn’t it?


And of course, we have also seen a proliferation of mutual aid efforts, especially since the uprising against the murder of George Floyd, where community groups organized to make sure that protests were supplied with masks, hand sanitizer, water and snacks for the long marches into the night.


These are all examples of what restaurants *could* be used for that would promote social betterment and introduce collectivity into the otherwise atomized, profit driven hubs of alienation that we have come to know as canon. The problem, of course, is that those examples, in and of themselves, do not address our most pressing demands as workers in the industry. 


We need to bring that creativity and inspiration with us into our workplaces, with the trust that those people – who have been fed and cared for by others in the streets – will also have our backs when we organize. When our labor is valued for what it provides to the social good, it can improve our workplaces, and it can also make a more just society overall. The organizing we do at our jobs is a part of that process of pushing back against the things in our daily lives that make no sense. In doing so, it forces us to think about all the possibilities – both good and bad – of what we can achieve when we organize as restaurant workers. 


So with that thought experiment about the possibilities of socialization, we leave you to read the June edition of The Dish: Pride & Possibilities. June is Pride month and we are honored to host this piece on what it’s like to transition as a server. And this piece about the history of restaurants and bars as flashpoints for LGBTQ+ organizing. Happy Pride to every LGBTQ+ restaurant worker hustling and facing discrimination on top of low pay and lack of benefits. We also have some other Possibilities: the possibility of winning a union drive; of improving our workplaces; of committing to an anti-racist industry; of how the local food movement could lead to more attention on the labor that goes into food; plus a darker hypothetical in our very first piece of restaurant worker fiction!