Democrats Line Restaurant Owners’ Pockets, Ditch Restaurant Workers

On April 7, House Democrats passed a $42 billion bailout for the restaurant industry. He faces resistance in an equally divided Senate. Republicans are, unsurprisingly, opposed to further pandemic spending in an election year. In the eyes of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the industry’s leading lobby group, the bill’s chances are still “uncertain”.

But if the bill passes, it will be a massive victory for the NRA, as the Democratic leaders who drafted the legislation are firmly in the pocket of these corporate lobbyists. Like a $29 billion version signed last year, this legislation is a blank check for investors and restaurant owners. It contains nothing that will directly improve workers’ wages or benefits. It won’t even save their jobs if there is another COVID surge and shutdown. Cooks, servers and bartenders need real help and huge changes at work, but Congress is only talking to their bosses.

In the absence of help from above, the only solution for America’s 15 million restaurant workers is the same for all workers: We must form unions and organize. The recent wave of unionization at Starbucks could show the way forward.

The new House bill is HR 3807, the Relief for Restaurants and other Hard Hit Small Businesses Act of 2022. It would inject $42 billion into the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). Last spring, the program awarded $29 billion in grants to restaurants to offset pandemic-related losses. This new bill would replenish the RRF enough to send money to an additional 177,000 businesses, or about 20% of all American restaurants.

The NRA and its new, smaller competitor, the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), have sounded the alarm over the collapse of the industry and the danger to the wider economy. They say 80% of restaurants that missed out on the first round of RRF subsidies are at risk of closing permanently, putting 1.6 million jobs at risk. To market the bailout to Democrats, the IRC also shed light on the struggles of minority-owned small businesses.

Overall, this campaign worked quite well. The bailout has bipartisan sponsors. Last week, nearly every Democrat in the House voted for HR 3807. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has close ties to New York restaurateurs like Excellent chef‘s Tom Colicchio, promises a floor vote in the Senate.

The problem is that these invoices were written by and for the restaurant owners.

The RRF has no conditions that force or even encourage companies to spend money on their employees. The only requirement to receive up to $10 million in public money is to sign a paper that your restaurant is open or plans to reopen soon.

This unconditional approach is out of step with other pandemic initiatives like the airline bailouts (backed by powerful airline unions), which has spent 100% of the money on payroll costs like retaining workers or sick leave offer. The minimum percentage requested in the restaurant rescue plan? Zero.

The NRA says the owners need flexibility to save the industry, but they’re just pocketing the cash. Restaurant owners have already raised a total of $73 billion in government aid; the typical owner earned thirty times more than his average worker. Right now, the hospitality industry is experiencing a historic “big quit” as millions of workers weary of years of exploitation quit their jobs – hardly an indication that restaurant bosses are suddenly putting the profits aside and look after their workers.

Big corporate donations come as no surprise to an industry where owners are much better organized than workers.

The NRA, IRC and their members have vast wealth and an army of political allies. Union density in restaurants, on the other hand, is barely 1%. Seventy percent of American restaurants are independent, single-unit operations, but unions in independent restaurants are almost unheard of today.

The balance of power is tilted so much in favor of the bosses that it is difficult to blame the politicians alone. In early 2021, a group of labor activists called United Restoration Workers and spoke to congressional legislative staff about the problems with the RRF. We were the first restaurant workers they had heard of. Meanwhile, the IRC had aggressively lobbied every congressional office for months.

Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) was a brave and solitary voice of public dissent against last year’s bailout. This time around, she won a House amendment banning grants to companies with wage theft violations. Beyond that, the only debate on the floor was how to pay for the bailout and whether gyms and music venues should also get a cut.

Democrats will continue to ignore the needs of workers until there is strong pressure from those workers. Believe it or not, there was a time when bar and restaurant workers had big, militant unions all over the United States that could defend their own interests.

In Distribute it, labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble estimates that union density in restaurants peaked at 25% nationwide after World War II. Until 1961, 80 to 90 percent of waiters and cooks in the San Francisco Bay Area were card-carrying union members. The restaurant unionists eventually suffered the same defeats as the rest of organized labor. The Taft-Hartley Act, the widespread ravages of neoliberalism, and the rise in size and power of restaurant chains have all combined to decimate union standards.

Today, there are signs that the smoldering labor unrest may finally be boiling over after the pandemic. Jaz Brisack and her colleagues in Buffalo, New York, won the first union election at a company-owned Starbucks in the United States in December. Since then, baristas have asked to unionize more than two hundred other stores and won dozens of elections.

Starbucks could be what the SEIU in the 1990s called a revolutionary campaign: “a combination of thinking big, engaging workers, communities and allies for a long campaign” that results in a massive expansion of unions. The Buffalo locations were chosen deliberately, but the rest was a real organic uprising of Starbucks workers who understood winning was possible. These baristas showed how we can launch groundbreaking campaigns against employers with national recognition and inspire large numbers of workers to organize quickly.

What about independent restaurants, where 11 million American baristas, cooks, bartenders, servers and dishwashers work? Rather than a single employer, a breakthrough campaign for independent restaurants likely needs to tackle an entire local industry. The best target would be the first “restaurant cluster” in a popular city or restaurant district. Combine proven union organizing with social movement tactics. Phrase requests in the broadest possible terms. Do a lot of very visible, even spectacular direct actions.

Former culinary unionists knew they had to take the fight to the boss in the places where they worked to build power, but they built even more when other workers joined their pickets and started fighting as well.

Restaurant workers have organized and won great things before. We can do it again.

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